Recently the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals approved the limitations that a trial court placed on an employee’s testimony about how his co-workers were victimized by a “pattern or practice” of age discrimination. The worker was permitted to testify about his manager’s age-related comments to other employees, but was prohibited from detailing the adverse actions allegedly taken against them. This decision levels the playing field for employers that worry that defending against the claims of an individual plaintiff at trial will force them to endure a series of “mini-trials” concerning the treatment of employees who are not parties to the case. Lawson v. Graphic Packaging Int’l, Inc., No. 13-30205 (5th Cir. Dec. 13, 2013).
Tim Lawson was a 58-year-old human resources manager for a paper mill who was fired for taking an administrative action without the mill manager’s approval. He sued the mill, claiming that certain comments by his manager following Lawson’s surgery some months earlier showed age bias. At trial, Lawson argued that the manager engaged in a “pattern or practice” of discriminating against older workers. The trial court permitted Lawson to relate ageist comments that the manager had made to other employees, but stopped him from testifying about adverse actions taken against these older co-workers. The jury returned a verdict in the company’s favor. On appeal, Lawson complained that he should have been allowed to explain to the jury how discriminatory actions against older workers was “standard operating procedure.” The appeals court disagreed, holding that the trial judge “struck a considered balance between permitting the jury to consider ‘pattern or practice’ evidence and avoiding introduction of cumulative evidence.” In other words, an employer should not be forced to defend a series of “mini-trials” over the harms allegedly suffered by other employees who have not sued, because the fact patterns of other cases are not probative of whether the plaintiff himself suffered discrimination. This spells an important victory for employers trying to keep the focus at trial on the plaintiff’s particular claims rather than its treatment of employees in general.