In a ruling that could have broad ramifications for workers who sue employers for age bias, the California Supreme Court has cleared the way for a former Google executive who was fired to move forward with a lawsuit accusing the company of age discrimination.
The justices on Thursday unanimously upheld a San Jose appeals court’s earlier conclusion that Brian Reid, who was fired from his job as Google’s engineering director in 2004, could take his case to trial because he’d presented enough evidence, including “stray comments” from co-workers and a supervisor mocking him for his age, to make a discrimination claim.
“It’s a significant victory for employees, and I’m on the management side, so it’s a significant defeat for companies,” said Dan Westman, co-chairman of the employment and labor group and a partner at San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster LLP.
A Google spokesman said Reid’s termination was not discriminatory and that Google will defend its actions — and its culture — in court.
“Brian Reid was not laid off based on his age,” said the spokesman, Andrew Pederson. “We look forward to demonstrating in court the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons why Mr. Reid was let go.”
Google recruited Reid, who had managed the team that built one of the first Internet search engines at AltaVista and who has a doctorate in computer science, in the summer of 2002. But the
company fired Reid, then 54, within two years, allegedly saying he was not a “cultural fit,” after co-workers and a supervisor had described him as “an old man,” “slow,” “sluggish” and “an old fuddy-duddy,” and made remarks such as that Reid’s compact disc cases should be relabeled LPs, according to court documents. Reid’s supervisor, Urs Hölzle, then 38, and currently a senior vice president and Google Fellow, regularly told Reid that his opinions and ideas were “too old to matter,” according to the documents.
Reid, now 60, lost 131,917 stock options he could have exercised for tens of millions of dollars in the years after Google went public in 2005. Reid’s lawyer said the computer scientist plans to take his claims to a trial in which he would air “significant statistical evidence” of age bias in pay and performance reviews by Google management, including internal documents that have remained sealed.
“It was a complete vindication of Dr. Reid,” the attorney, Lori Ocheltree, said of the Supreme Court decision. “It says a great deal about Google and what is going on in that company, and specifically what is going on at the head of that company and in the inner circle of that company — that young 20-year-olds don’t necessarily see a place for tremendously talented, experienced 50- and 60-year-olds.”
Google does not share statistical data on the age of its work force, but Pederson said the company has many older workers, whose contributions are valued equally. “Age is not a factor for us. If you can do the work, that’s all we care about.” Google asserted in court documents that Reid was fired because the program he headed was being eliminated and because of poor performance.
Stray comments doctrine
The case was closely watched by employment lawyers, with a host of organizations lining up on both sides of the case, including the AARP on Reid’s behalf and the California Employment Law Council for Google. Lawyers who specialize in representing companies accused of discrimination said the ruling will make it easier for workers in California to get their age discrimination suits before a jury, because it allowed the use of stray comments.
Companies had relied on a legal doctrine arising from a U.S. Supreme Court case that an age discrimination case cannot be founded on a collection of remarks in the workplace, such as the “old fuddy-duddy” comments cited by Reid.
The ruling means that in California, “it will be easier for plaintiffs to get to a jury,” said Eric Steinert of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw in San Francisco, “because in the past employers relied fairly heavily on this stray remarks doctrine.”
“The consequence of that is going to be more trials, more pressure to settle, and perhaps more evidence coming in at trial regarding these remarks,” he said.
Westman said another consequence could be that California companies will need to be more vigilant about remarks made in the workplace, given that with an aging population, “it’s inevitable that older workers are going to be supervised by younger managers proportionally more in the future.”
Younger computer workers
In recent years, Silicon Valley computer workers have tended to be much younger than the valley’s overall work force. Data from the 2000 census, analyzed by the Mercury News, shows that while 21 percent of all workers at Santa Clara County companies were older than 50, 9 percent of computer workers were 50 or older. Data from the 2010 census is not yet available.
Reid, who now works at Redwood City-based Internet Systems Consortium, won’t be speaking publicly because of pending litigation, Ocheltree said.
“He’s delighted. It’s been six long years so far,” she said. “He’s eager to have his day in court.”
Legal experts say the ruling will make it easier for workers in California to get their age discrimination suits before a jury because it allowed the use of stray comments.