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In a sharp defeat for business, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that workers can win employment discrimination suits even without direct proof that their bosses acted with discriminatory intent. The surprisingly unanimous decision in Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products Inc., also made it more difficult for appeals courts to second-guess jury verdicts in all kinds of civil cases. Many business lawyers were hoping the Court would use the case to temper some of the power wielded by juries, rather than judges, in employment cases. “A lot more cases will get to a jury, and will be upheld on appeal,” said University of Washington law Professor Eric Schnapper, part of the legal team arguing the case for Roger Reeves, a Columbus, Miss., man who had won an age discrimination suit against the toilet-seat manufacturing company. Employers will be vulnerable to lawsuits in a broader range of cases, business lawyers lamented after reading Monday’s ruling. “Juries will now be able to guess about an employer’s motivation for its treatment of employees,” said Philip Berkowitz, partner in the New York office of Salans Hertzfeld Heilbronn Christy & Viener. “It also means that the federal anti-bias laws have the effect of being civility codes for the workplace.” He explained that any abusive or harassing conduct by an employer — even conduct not motivated by bias — could invite a job discrimination suit. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the Court, settled a longstanding dispute between federal appeals courts over an issue crucial to employment discrimination lawsuits — whether plaintiffs must prove simply that an employer’s explanation for an adverse job action is “pretextual,” or whether they must also prove that discrimination was the real reason. Plaintiffs, noting that there is seldom eyewitness proof of biased intentions, argue that showing that the employer’s stated reason is false should be enough to win a claim of race, gender, disability, or age bias. Employers defending against bias claims were hoping the Court would opt for the “pretext-plus” approach taken by the 1st, 5th, and 11th circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals. But O’Connor sided with plaintiffs, ruling that “it is permissible for the trier of fact to infer the ultimate fact of discrimination from the falsity of the employer’s explanation.” O’Connor also said, “In appropriate circumstances, the trier of fact can reasonably infer from the falsity of the explanation that the employer is dissembling to cover up a discriminatory purpose.” She cautioned that such a showing by the plaintiff won’t always be adequate, if “no rational factfinder could conclude that the action was discriminatory.” But that was not enough of a caveat to give solace to employment discrimination defense lawyers. The $100,000 jury verdict in favor of Reeves was overturned by the 5th Circuit, which found that Reeves, who was 57 when he was fired, had not offered enough proof of age discrimination. The plumbing company won “judgment as a matter of law” after filing a motion under Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. But the Supreme Court on Monday said the 5th Circuit “impermissibly substituted its judgment concerning the weight of the evidence for the jury’s.” The Court also said that in considering Rule 50 motions, appeals courts “must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” The Court’s ruling on the Rule 50 issue could be useful for winning plaintiffs in a broad range of cases in staving off reversal in appeals courts.

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