U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Robinson v. Runyon, 149 F.3d 507 (6th Cir., July 22, 1998).
The agency terminated plaintiff, a keyer clerk, for willful disregard of safety rules. She had lost control of her car on an agency driveway when it slid on ice. The agency conducted an investigation of the accident before terminating her, as required by agency rules. However, neither the investigators nor the agency officials involved in the termination process inquired into whether there were any witnesses to the accident or to the condition of the driveway, and plaintiff herself was not given an opportunity to explain. After she was terminated, plaintiff filed a union grievance on the matter. A new investigation revealed the ice and water conditions and the fact that plaintiff had been traveling at a much lower rate of speed than previously assumed. The agency settled plaintiff's grievance, reinstating her and paying back pay.
Plaintiff then filed a lawsuit, requesting compensatory damages. She alleged disparate treatment because of her race. The district court excluded two pieces of exhibit evidence which plaintiff intended to offer to support her contentions that racism was pervasive at the agency facility. The one exhibit which became the central issue on appeal was a fake employment application containing numerous racial stereotypes of African-Americans, which had been circulated in the facility. The exhibits were excluded on the grounds that they were not relevant and could unfairly prejudice the defendant agency. The case was tried to a jury without the exhibits and supporting testimony. Plaintiff presented evidence intended to show that in investigating her accident and deciding to terminate her, she was treated less favorably than white employees. Judgment was entered for the agency, and plaintiff appealed.
The Court of Appeals decided that the district court improperly excluded the fake employment application from trial, characterizing the application as a "key piece of evidence." The Court stated that evidence of a racially hostile atmosphere clearly was relevant to plaintiff's allegations of race discrimination. The Court observed that in discrimination cases such evidence, even though typically "unflattering" to the defendant, may be critical for the jury's assessment of an employer's motive. The agency had argued that the application was not relevant because plaintiff failed to show that one of the supervisors involved in plaintiff's termination had any connection to the fake application. The Court disagreed. The application remains a possible link, the Court stated, even though the application alone might not prove plaintiff's case and might require the jury to draw inferences. With respect to the agency's claim of unfair prejudice, the Court stated that the racially inflammatory nature of the evidence is not enough of a showing. The racially inflammatory nature was "precisely why it is probative," stated the Court, and therefore the agency would have to allege more in order to establish a danger of unfair prejudice.
The Court found that excluding the application precluded plaintiff from the full opportunity to present her case, and stated that the exclusion was far from harmless. The Court decided that plaintiff was entitled to a new trial to rectify the "substantial injustice," and remanded the case.