California Supreme Court Rejects “Stray Remarks” Doctrine in Age Discrimination Case

Last week, in a long-awaited decision, the California Supreme Court handed employers a setback by holding that age-related comments by non-decision makers can be relevant and admissible as evidence in age discrimination cases. In the case of Reid v. Google, Inc., the Court specifically rejected the "stray remarks doctrine," by which any remarks made by non-decision making co-workers or decision-making supervisors outside the decisional process were deemed irrelevant and insufficient to support an age discrimination claim.

The case was brought by Brian Reid, who was hired as Google's director of operations and engineering at age 54 but was removed from that position and then terminated less than two years later.  Reid attempted to prove his claim for age discrimination by use of comments made by his superiors and co-workers that his opinions were obsolete and "too old to matter," that Reid was "slow," "lazy," and "lethargic," and "lacked energy," and that he was an "old fuddy duddy" whose office placard should be an LP instead of a compact disc. Reid was first removed from his director position and put in charge of a graduate program after being criticized for failing to keep up with the corporation's "super-fast pace," and was then removed from that position when the program was eliminated and management determined that he was "not a good cultural fit."

The Supreme Court unanimously held that the categorical exclusion of age-related comments of this nature was impermissible because they both can influence a decision-maker and provide relevant circumstantial evidence of discrimination. The Court wrote that:

Although stray remarks may not have strong probative value when viewed in isolation, they may corroborate direct evidence of discrimination or gain significance in conjunction with other circumstantial evidence.

The likely effect of the ruling is to make it more difficult for employers to obtain summary judgment on age discrimination claims when additional evidence of discrimination beyond such stray remarks exists to support the claims.

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