Reid v. Google, Inc.: California Supreme Court Limits Stray Remarks Doctrine For Employers Seeking Summary Judgment

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The California Supreme Court’s recent ruling in an age discrimination case, Reid v. Google, Inc., underscores the inaccuracy of the childhood adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” California employers now find they need to pay even more attention to who is saying what to avoid employment discrimination lawsuits.

The Stray Remarks Doctrine was borne of the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. In her concurring opinion, Justice O’Connor stated that “stray remarks” – “statements by nondecision makers, or statements by decisionmakers unrelated to the decisional process itself” – were insufficient by themselves to constitute direct evidence that an employer’s decision was based on discriminatory animus. (However, she also explained that stray remarks could be probative of discrimination and, in fact, found Price Waterhouse unlawfully based its decision on gender.) As a result, employers often successfully argued that ambiguous comments were “isolated,” “irrelevant,” and “unrelated to the employment decision” to seek summary judgment.

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