On August 5, 2010, the California Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision concerning the type of evidence a worker can rely upon to prove an employer discriminated against him or her. The Court’s decision concerns the so-called “stray remarks doctrine.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor coined the term in a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, writing that “stray remarks” made by “non-decisionmaking coworkers or remarks made by decisionmaking supervisors outside of the decisional process” are insufficient evidence of an employer’s discriminatory attitude. Without additional evidence of discrimination, she wrote, a gender discrimination claim can be and should be dismissed by the court before trial.

In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989) 490 U.S. 228, the worker presented evidence that a partner of the firm told her to “walk more femininely,” “talk more femininely,” “dress more femininely,” “wear make-up,” “have her hair styled,” and “wear jewelry” to improve her chances for partnership. Justice O’Connor concluded that though such “stray remarks” might constitute evidence of a discriminatory attitude in the workplace, they are not sufficient evidence of discrimination on their own. When combined with more direct kinds of evidence of discrimination, however, stray remarks evidence can tend to support a discrimination claim.

Since 1989, some federal courts have expanded the stay remarks doctrine substantially. In Hill v. Lockheed Martin, for example, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that remarks by non-decisionmakers that the worker was a “useless old lady” “who needed to retire” and was a “troubled old lady,” did not influence the decisional process directly and, therefore, were completely irrelevant to the worker’s discrimination claim.

In its August 5th decision, the California Supreme Court concluded that the wholesale rejection of evidence of stray remarks, as suggested by the Fourth Circuit, is improper. It explained that such evidence can tend to show discriminatory animus or attitudes within the workplace. Under California law, then, stray remarks are relevant and cannot be completely ignored by the trial courts in ruling on pre-trial motions for summary judgment.

While the California Supreme Court’s decision focuses on evidentiary issues and pretrial procedures, the importance of the decision for California workers is significant. Although a racial, sexual or age-based slur might not conclusively demonstrate employment discrimination, such stray remarks combined with other more direct evidence of discrimination (statistics, testimony, emails and the like) can be used to defeat a defendant’s motion for summary judgment before trial.

The California Supreme Court explained that “[T]he stray remarks doctrine contains a major flaw because discriminatory remarks by a non-decisionmaking employee can influence a decision maker.” Thus, stray remarks can constitute evidence of discriminatory animus. The Supreme Court of California found another federal appellate court’s position on the stray remarks doctrine persuasive. In Shager v. Upjohn Co. (7th Cir. 1990) 913 F.2d 398, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “If [the formal decision maker] acted as the conduit of [an employee’s] prejudice – his cat’s paw – the innocence of [the decision maker] would not spare the company from liability.”

Thus, for example, discriminatory comments by a worker capable of influencing the actual decisionmakers can provide admissible evidence of discrimination by the employer.

This is good news for workers in California who often find it difficult to unearth more direct evidence of discrimination. While the California Supreme Court ultimately concluded that, on their own, inappropriate stray remarks by non-decisionmakers do not prove discrimination, its decision will permit workers to present evidence of stray remarks in the context of other discriminatory practices in the workplace.