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Reid v. Google, Inc.

California Courts Must Consider Circumstances When Evaluating Workplace Statements for Age Bias

In a win for older workers, California’s Supreme Court ruled as AARP had urged that categorically excluding evidence of age bias by characterizing comments as “stray remarks” was “unnecessary” and might lead to unfair results.

In Reid v. Google, Inc., AARP’s “friend of the court” brief argued that trial judges may not simply categorize workplace comments made by nonsupervisors, co-workers and others not directly involved in firing an employee as “stray remarks” — and then automatically exclude such evidence from consideration when deciding whether the case should go to trial.

Instead, AARP argued, since such evidence can be probative of discriminatory intent, the judge must consider the circumstances in which those statements were made and decide if all of the employee’s evidence, including the statements, is sufficient to support an inference of discrimination. If so, the judge must deny the employer’s motion for summary judgment and allow the case to proceed to trial so that the jury can decide the question of discrimination based on all the evidence. The California court agreed.

The Dispute

At the pinnacle of a distinguished 30-year career in computer science, Dr. Brian Reid was hired by Google in June 2002 at age 52 as its director of operations and director of engineering. At the time, Google was a young company attempting to establish credibility among startup investors wary of investing in a business founded by two individuals under age 30 and run by recent college graduates. Almost immediately, Reid encountered the youth culture for which Google is famous.  

Beginning with his first day on the job, he was continually subjected to comments that he feels reflect age bias by much younger executives, supervisors and co-workers. For example, one of the supervisors took every opportunity to tell Reid his ideas were “obsolete” and “too old to matter,” and that he was “slow,”  “sluggish,”  “lethargic” and “lacked energy.” His co-workers referred to him as “old man,”  “old guy” and “old fuddy-duddy.” In Reid’s presence, one of the Google founders said that he “likes having younger workers at Google” because “hiring younger people just worked better.” Even though the only written performance evaluation Reid received was full of praise for his contributions to the company, it also warned that “[a]dapting to the Google culture is the primary task for the first year here ... Right or wrong, Google is simply different: Younger contributors, inexperienced first line managers, and the super fast pace are just a few of the examples of the environment.”

The process that eventually resulted in Reid’s termination began Oct. 13, 2003, the date he was stripped of his title of director of operations and his responsibilities as director of engineering were removed. He was replaced by a supervisor who was 15 years his junior, and assigned to establish an in-house college degree program, but was never given a budget or staff. Finally, on Feb. 24, 2004, the vice president of business operations told Reid he was being terminated that day not for performance reasons, but because he was not a “cultural fit.”

Reid sued Google claiming that he was fired because of his age in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The trial court granted Google’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case on the basis that the above-quoted statements as well as others by Reid’s supervisors and co-workers were “stray remarks” and, thus, not admissible evidence of age bias.
The California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court decision, ruling that the workplace statements that Reid offered were not stray remarks, but relevant ageist comments that, together with his other evidence, created a genuine issue of material fact regarding Google’s discriminatory intent. Thus, the Court of Appeal concluded that summary judgment was improperly granted.

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