Court of Appeal Examines "Same Actor" Inference

Nita White-Ivy was a senior HR manager. She was Marietta Harvey's boss at a company called Pyramid. Then, White-Ivy became VP of Global HR for Sybase. She hired Harvey to be a director of HR at Sybase. Both women are Filipina. At Sybase, White-Ivy promoted Harvey several times, up to where she was the second-highest ranking employee in the department. Later, White-Ivy was considering demoting Harvey because she was unhappy with Harvey's performance and wanted to reduce her responsibilities. Harvey spoke with other executives about this proposed demotion. White-Ivy did not go forward with the demotion. However, she called Harvey on the carpet for "back-stabbling" and eliminated her position. Also, in response to some other executives' feedback, White-Ivy had commented that there were too many Asian females in the HR department, and she was interested in hiring more males, and more white males.

Harvey sued Sybase for race /national origin and sex discrimination. Thus, she accused White-Ivy, another female Filipina, of firing Harvey because of discrimination. That's the same White-Ivy who supervised Harvey at two companies, hired her at Sybase, and gave her several promotions. Harvey also claimed she was fired for discussing her salary in violation of the Labor Code.

A jury obviously found that there was no way White-Ivy was motivated by sex or national origin discrimination when she decided to fire Harvey, right? Wrong. The jury awarded her $1.8 million, including $500,000 in punitive damages.

The Court of Appeal rejected Sybase's argument that the same actor evidence - evidence that White-Ivy had treated Harvey well on so many occasions over a long period of time - was dispositive. The Court found "substantial evidence" on which the jury could have found discrimination - that White-Ivy was motivated to replace Asian females with males and non-Asians. Under well-settled principles, if a jury's verdict is based on substantial evidence, the jury is is privileged to reject contrary evidence, even if compelling. So, the Court affirmed the jury's verdict, acknowledging the evidence of non-discrimination was strong.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this case, including about "diversity" efforts. Announcing a desire to hire members of one protected group or another to improve the mix of races and sexes in a department may be used as evidence of discrimination by members of other groups. Even a manager with a history of favoring members of one group may be found to have discriminatory motivations. Finally, the "same actor" inference remains part of employment law, particularly in the context of motions for summary judgment. However, it is unclear how this case, decided after a verdict, will affect courts' analysis.

The case is Harvey v. Sybase and the opinion is here.