In Reid v. Google, Inc., (— Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal., August 5, 2010), the Supreme Court considered whether California courts should follow federal courts and adopt the “stray remarks doctrine” for employment discrimination cases. The Supreme Court declined to adopt the stray remarks doctrine.
Brian Reid started working at Google, Inc., in June 2002. Google hired Reid, who has a Ph.D. in computer science and was formerly an associate professor at Stanford University, to work as director of operations and director of engineering. Reid was 52 years of age when Wayne Rosing hired him. In his work, Reid interacted with Google’s “chief executive officer (CEO) Eric Schmidt (then age 47), vice-president of engineering operations Urs Hölzle (then age 38), and founders Sergey Brin (then age 28), and Larry Page (then age 29).” In his work Reid reported to Rosing and also at times reported to Hölzle. Reid received a positive performance review for his first year and received bonuses from February 2003 to February 2004. Rosing, however, stated in the review that “[a]dapting to Google culture is the primary task for the first year here . . . . Right or wrong, Google is simply different: Younger contributors, inexperienced first line managers, and the super fast pace are just a few examples of the environment.”
Reid alleged fellow employees made derogatory age-related remarks to him while he was employed at Google. Hölzle told Reid his ideas and opinions were “obsolete” and also “too old to matter” and that Reid was “slow,” “sluggish,” “lethargic,” he failed to “display a sense of urgency,” and he “lacked energy.” Reid claims Hölzle made comments about his age every few weeks. Some of Reid’s other coworkers called him an “old guy,” and an “old fuddy-duddy,” and told him his ideas were ancient.
In October 2003, Rosing removed Reid from his position of director of operations and relieved him of his director of engineering responsibilities, although Reid was allowed to retain that title. Hölzle assumed the position of director of operations and a man 20 years younger than Reid assumed Reid’s other duties. Google asked Reid to implement an in-house graduate degree program and an undergraduate college recruiting program. Google did not give Reid a budget or staff to implement these programs.
In January 2004, Brin, Page, Rosing, and Hölzle collectively decided that Reid should not receive a bonus for 2003. Schmidt sent an e-mail to Rosing asking him for a proposal to get Reid “out.” Rosing expressed concern about not paying Reid a bonus and suggested paying Reid a bonus of $11,300 and a severance package “to avoid ‘a judge concluding [they] acted harshly.'” On February 13, 2004, Rosing told Reid that the engineering department no longer had a place for him. Google claims it told Reid that the graduate program was being eliminated and that Google was terminating Reid because of job elimination and his poor performance. Reid claims he was not given a reason for his termination “other than lack of ‘cultural fit.'”
Reid asked if he could find another job in the company and Rosing encouraged him to apply for other jobs. E-mails that were circulated “among various department heads indicated that no other department intended to hire Reid.” The vice-president of business operations told Reid “he was not a ‘cultural fit’ at Google.” Reid left Google on February 27, 2004.
Reid sued Google for age discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and unfair competition law (“UCL”) and also asserted various other causes of action related to his termination. The trial court granted summary judgment to Google on Reid’s claims of age discrimination. A court of appeal reversed the trial court’s decision on summary judgment in regard to the age discrimination claims under the FEHA and the UCL.
The stray remarks doctrine provides that “statements that non-decision-makers make or that decision makers make outside the decisional process are deemed ‘stray,’ and they are irrelevant and insufficient to avoid summary judgment.” The court of appeal rejected Google’s claim “that alleged ageist comments by Google decision makers and Reid’s coworkers were stray remarks and therefore insufficient proof of pretext.”
The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeal. One major issue before the Supreme Court was “whether California law should adopt the stray remarks doctrine.” The Supreme Court found that the court of appeal “correctly determined that application of the stray remarks doctrine is unnecessary and its categorical exclusion of evidence might lead to unfair results.”
Google asserted the trial court “should have categorized the alleged statements by Hölzle and Rosing as irrelevant stray remarks, and disregarded them in reviewing the merits of the summary judgment motion.” Under the stray remarks doctrine, “federal circuit courts deem irrelevant any remarks made by non-decisionmaking coworkers or remarks made by decisionmaking supervisors outside of the decisional process, and such stray remarks are insufficient to withstand summary judgment.”
Prior to the case in controversy, California courts had never explicitly adopted or addressed this doctrine. Here, the court of appeal “rejected application of the stray remarks doctrine” and disagreed “with suggestions that a ‘single, isolated discriminatory comment’ . . . or comments that are ‘unrelated to the decisional process’ are ‘stray’ and therefore, insufficient to avoid summary judgment.” The court of appeal “recognized ‘[t]here are certainly cases that in context of the evidence as a whole, the remarks at issue provide such weak evidence that a verdict resting on them cannot be sustained.” However, the court found “such judgments must be made on a case-by-case basis in light of the entire record.”
The Supreme Court also rejected adoption of the stray remarks doctrine. The Court gave five reasons for its conclusion: (1) “strict application of the stray remarks doctrine, as urged by Google, would result in a court’s categorical exclusion of evidence even if the evidence was relevant;” (2) “strict application of the stray remarks doctrine would be contrary to the procedural rules codified by statute and adopted in [Supreme Court] cases;” (3) “the stray remarks cases merely demonstrate the ‘common-sense proposition’ that a slur, in and of itself, does not prove actionable discrimination;” (4) “because there is no precise definition of who is a decision maker or what constitutes remarks made outside of the decisional process in the employment context, federal circuit courts have diverged in determining what constitutes a stray remark;” and (5) “federal courts have treated identical remarks inconsistently.”
The Supreme Court found the court of appeal properly considered the alleged remarks made by Reid’s coworkers along with other evidence to determine that the trial court should not have granted summary judgment in favor Google.
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