Courts regularly act as gatekeepers in determining what evidence juries are entitled to hear at trial. In Nuccio v. Shell Pipeline Co., LP, a federal district court barred an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) determination letter because its probative value was outweighed by its prejudice. No. 19-446-WBV-DPC (E.D. La. Dec. 11, 2020). Nuccio highlights an important mechanism for challenging the admissibility of agency determinations that contain inaccurate facts and disputed conclusions of law.
In 1996, Shell Pipeline hired plaintiff Joseph Nuccio as a maintenance technician. Nuccio is blind in his left eye and contends that Shell knew this in 1996 because he took an eye exam as part of the hiring process. In 2013, Nuccio was involved in an accident while driving a company vehicle. Following the accident, Shell asked Nuccio to undergo an eye exam from Shell’s doctor and he was subsequently disallowed from driving company vehicles. In 2015, Nuccio was reassigned from maintenance technician to refinery worker. Nuccio filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, claiming his reassignment was a demotion motivated by his visual disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The EEOC issued a determination letter stating there was “reasonable cause” to believe Shell violated the ADA by “demoting” Nuccio. Shell objected to these findings.
When the case moved to federal court, Shell filed a motion in limine to exclude the EEOC’s determination letter as unduly prejudicial under Federal Rule of Evidence (FRE) 403. Shell argued the letter contained numerous factual and legal errors, including, but not limited to: (1) stating that the 2013 accident was Nuccio’s first accident, when it was actually his third; (2) stating that nobody had been injured in the accident; (3) declaring Nuccio’s medical examination was “illegal” and unjustified, and his reassignment was an “unlawful” demotion “because of his disability.” Opposing the motion, Nuccio argued that, under FRE 803(8)(A)(iii), the EEOC’s determination letter was admissible under the public records exception to the hearsay rule, absent a showing of untrustworthiness. He cited numerous Fifth Circuit appellate court decisions admitting EEOC letters of determination or reasonable cause – but not letters of violation – on the grounds that “a letter of reasonable cause is more tentative in its conclusions whereas a letter of violation states the categorical legal conclusion that a violation has taken place.”
The court granted Shell’s motion and excluded the EEOC determination letter from evidence at trial. It noted that a governmental agency’s determination is presumed admissible under the public records exception to the hearsay rule, but held that any probative value of the EEOC’s determination letter in this case was outweighed by its prejudicial effect under FRE 403. In particular, the EEOC’s references to an illegal medical examination and unlawful demotion were legal conclusions more akin to a ruling of law or letter of violation than an investigatory report with findings of fact and could confuse or prejudice a jury against Shell.
By focusing on the EEOC’s characterization of facts and law – and not the official title of the letter or report in question – the court made clear that: (1) FRE 803(8)(A)(iii)’s hearsay exception does not automatically eclipse FRE 403; and (2) courts can serve as important and active gatekeepers and exclude evidence when its probative value is substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice, jury confusion, or other factors under the federal rules.
In light of Nuccio, employment litigators should carefully examine written statements by government agencies to determine whether any misstatements of fact or conclusions of law provide a basis for excluding potentially harmful evidence.