Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn

PETITIONER: Sprint/United Management Company
RESPONDENT: Ellen Mendelsohn
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals Eleventh Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 06-1221
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 552 US 379 (2008)
GRANTED: Jun 11, 2007
ARGUED: Dec 03, 2007
DECIDED: Feb 26, 2008

ADVOCATES:
Dennis E. Egan - on behalf of the Respondent
Gregory G. Garre - on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae
Paul W. Cane, Jr. - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

During a company-wide reduction in force, Sprint fired fifty-one-year-old employee Ellen Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn sued, alleging that Sprint had discriminated against her on account of age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. At the trial, Mendelsohn attempted to present evidence from other Sprint employees who alleged that they were also discriminated against by the company. This type of testimony by employees who are not parties to the case is sometimes called "me, too" testimony. The District Court judge refused to admit the testimony, citing the "same supervisor" rule. Since the other employees did not share a supervisor with Mendelsohn, their testimony was not relevant to the alleged discriminatory intent behind the decision to fire her.

The jury returned a verdict for Sprint, but on appeal the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed and ordered a new trial. The Tenth Circuit held that the "same supervisor" rule applies only to discriminatory disciplinary actions and not to suits alleging a company-wide policy of discrimination. The Tenth Circuit held that the "me, too" testimony was relevant because the other employees were similarly situated and fired around the same time, and it held that the testimony was important enough that its exclusion had denied Mendelsohn an opportunity to present her allegation of company-wide discrimination. The ruling conflicted with those of several other Circuit Courts which approved the exclusion of "me, too" testimony.

Question

In employment discrimination cases, must a court admit "me, too" evidence - testimony by other employees who are not parties to the case and who were allegedly discriminated against by persons who had no role in the employment decision being challenged by the plaintiff?

Media for Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 03, 2007 in Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 26, 2008 in Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Respondent was employed by petitioner from 1989 until 2002 when she was terminated as part of a companywide reduction in force.

She sued petitioner under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 alleging desperate retreatment based on age.

In support of her claim, respondent sought to introduce testimony by five other former employees of petitioner who claimed that their supervisors, different supervisors, had discriminated against them also because of age.

Petitioner moved to exclude the testimony, arguing that it was irrelevant to the central issue in the case, whether petitioner was terminated by her supervisor because of age.

In a minute order, the District Court granted the motion excluding in relevant part evidence of discrimination against employees not similarly situated to plaintiff.

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit treated the minute order as the application of a per se rule that evidence from employees with other supervisors is irrelevant to proving discrimination in an age discrimination case.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case with instructions to have the District Court clarify the basis for its ruling.

Reviewing courts should afford broad discretion to a District Court's evidentiary rulings.

Contrary to the Court of Appeals' conclusion, nothing in the brief minute order of the District Court includes analysis suggesting that the District Court improperly applied a per se rule to exclude the evidence.

When a District Court's language is ambiguous, the Court of Appeals should not simply presume that the lower court reached an incorrect legal conclusion.

The Court of Appeals further erred by proceeding to conduct its own balancing of the evidentiary factors after it concluded that the District Court had applied an incorrect rule of law.

Instead, it should have remanded the case to the District Court to properly apply the federal rules of evidence in the first instance.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.