Court of Appeal on Discovery of Co-Workers' Files in Discrimination Cases

The appellate courts rarely get involved in discovery issues. It's usually up to the trial courts and parties to fight about what is relevant, what is a privacy issue, etc. So, guidance from the Court of Appeal is a welcome development.

Timothy Joyce sued his former employer, Life Technologies Corporation (LTC), for age discrimination and retaliation. In essence, Life Technologies merged with Joyce's former employer and he was laid off. He alleged that he was on a hit-list of over 40 employees, and that he was set up for termination, among other things.

In litigation, Joyce sought through interrogatories data about co-workers including:

(a) The names of all employees terminated during a two-year period, November 1, 2008 to June 28, 2010. 
(b) The department each worked for when terminated. 
(c) The date of termination. 
(d) The age of each at termination. 
(e) The reason for termination. 
(f) Whether severance benefits were offered.
(g) Whether offered severance benefits were accepted. 
(h) A description of any offered severance benefits. 
(i) A detailed explanation of reasons for any failure to offer severance benefits. 
(j) The identity (including name, address and telephone number) of all former Applied Biosystems employees still employed by LTC after the RIF. 
(k) Whether the terminated employees were former employees of Appelera or Applied Biosystems.

LTC and Joyce became involved in a discovery dispute, which resulted in a trial court order granting access to the information, but requiring the parties to first send a letter to employees notifying them of the proposed disclosure. the information would be disclosed unless the employees at issue filed a motion for protective order.  The court of appeal noted that there was no provision for protection of the information and no "opt-out" other than via a formal motion. 

The court first noted that statistical information could be relevant to a disparate impact claim and that the RIF provided for the requisite facially neutral practice.  Joyce also wanted the data for a disparate treatment claim, i.e., intentional discrimination.  The court of appeal pointed out that statistical evidence is far less important in disparate treatment cases:
Statistical evidence may also be utilized in a disparate treatment case. However, because discriminatory intent must be shown in such a case, statistical evidence must meet a more exacting standard. “[T]o create an inference of intentional discrimination, statistics must demonstrate a significant disparity and must eliminate nondiscriminatory reasons for the apparent disparity. Aragon [v. Republic Silver State Disposal Inc. (9th Cir. 2002) 292 F.3d 654, 663 (Aragon) (finding that statistics unsupported by other probative evidence of discrimination was insufficient to show pretext and to demonstrate discrimination); see also Coleman v. Quaker Oats Co. (9th Cir. 2000) 232 F.3d 1271, 1283 (holding that to raise a triable issue of fact regarding pretext based solely on statistical evidence, the statistics „must show a stark pattern of discrimination unexplainable on grounds other than age‟); United States v. Ironworkers Local 86 (9th Cir. 1971) 443 F.2d 544, 551, fn. omitted] . . . (holding that use of statistical evidence „is conditioned by the existence of proper supportive facts and the absence of variables which would undermine the reasonableness of the inference of discrimination which is drawn.‟).” (Gratch v. Nicholson (N.D.Ca. 2005, No. C04-03028 JSW) 2005 WL 2290315, *4.) 
Thus, “[a]lthough use of statistics is permissible [in a disparate treatment case], statistical evidence „rarely suffices to rebut an employer‟s legitimate, nondiscriminatory rationale for its decision to dismiss an individual employee.‟ Aragon[, supra, at p. 663, fn. 6.] . . . [T]his is so because „in disparate treatment cases, the central focus is less on whether a pattern of discrimination existed [at the company] and more how a particular individual was treated and why. As such, statistical evidence of a company‟s general hiring patterns, although relevant, carries less probative weight than it does in a disparate impact case.‟ [Ibid., citing LeBlanc v. Great Amer. Ins. Co. (1st Cir. 1993) 6 F.3d 836, 848-49.]” (Gratch v. Nicholson, supra, at p. *4, fn. 4.)

The court therefore found that at least some of the information sought would be arguably relevant to Joyce's claims. But the court then turned to privacy analysis.  

The court held that Joyce had made no showing that the identities, addresses and other private information of co-workers, particularly those who were not contended to be witnesses to any discriminatory conduct against Joyce, were sufficiently "needed" to overcome the individuals' privacy interests.  The court distinguished the "class action" discovery cases because the identities of class members are really the identities of potential witnesses, and because of the specific issues that arise in class certification proceedings.

Significantly, the court pointed out that there was no reason why statistics could not be developed without disclosure of individuals' personal information, absent a showing that LTC would provide unreliable data without giving out names and addresses, etc.  Joyce also failed to adequately demonstrate the need for the breadth of information he sought. 

The court also criticized the court's order because it placed too high a burden on objecting employees.  The court noted that if the information had been subpoenaed, a simple objection by the third party could stop the disclosure, rather than a formal motion.  Also, the court would have permitted the plaintiff to send out a notice to third parties, thereby requiring disclosure of names and addresses before the employees had a chance to object.

Finally, the trial court did not put any safeguards in place regarding the use or custody of the needed information via a suitable protective order.

Disputes such as these are common in employment law.  Therefore, when "meeting and conferring," lawyers may use this case to limit disclosure of private personnel information absent a sufficient showing of need, and ensure that private information is kept that way during and after litigation.

The opinion is Life Technologies Corporation v. Superior Court and the opinion is here.