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By Chris Opfer
Oct. 29 — A worker alleging she was fired for helping her former supervisor in a race discrimination claim against their employer is entitled to the discovery of certain co-worker and manager human resources files, a federal district court in Washington state ruled Oct. 29.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington said Longevity Medical Clinic was required to turn over the requested documents to Mindy Lauer because the information they contained might help her establish a pattern or practice of discrimination or retaliation and show that similarly situated workers were treated more favorably than she was. Although Longevity Medical claimed that at least some or all of the information in the records was irrelevant, the court said that determination wasn't the company's to make.
“Defendants are not, as they suggest, entitled to pick and choose what parts of the personnel files they think are relevant to Plaintiff, to limit discovery to only those portions of the files that contain complaints or discipline related to discrimination, or to select the parts of the files that they think are ‘reasonably likely' to yield admissible evidence,” Judge John C. Coughenour wrote.
Lauer sued Longevity Medical for retaliation under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. § 1981). She claimed that she was berated by a superior, subjected to increasing discipline and ultimately fired because she provided a written statement in support of a former supervisor who sued the company for race discrimination.
Lauer requested the personnel files for 21 workers and managers during discovery, including documents related to worker qualifications, job and discipline histories; requests for medical or other leaves of absence; and information about their race, national origin and disability status. In response, the company provided files for seven workers: the two managers named as defendants in the case, four employees Lauer said opposed the retaliation against her, and one worker the company said was an appropriate comparator.
Granting her motion to compel production of the remaining files, the court cited “the heightened relevancy of personnel files, even of non-parties, in employment discrimination suits.” Coughenour said the files could potentially yield “highly relevant” evidence, such as information about other discrimination complaints or proof of disparate treatment in pay, promotion or discipline.
The judge added that such evidence is particularly useful in employment discrimination and retaliation cases.
“In these suits, the inner mental motivations behind allegedly discriminatory acts are near impossible to prove,” Coughenour wrote. “Therefore, courts have recognized several categories of indirect evidence of discriminatory intent as highly relevant and admissible, barring any privilege.”
The court said in particular that the personnel files could be used to establish a pattern or practice of discrimination and show that other workers with similar disciplinary records weren't punished as severely as Lauer was. Meanwhile, the court found that the leave of absence information could be useful in determining whether other workers who were allegedly discriminated or retaliated against were also forced to take time off to cope with related stress, as Lauer claimed she had been.
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Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Lauer_v_Longevity_Medical_Clinic_PLLC_et_al_Docket_No_213cv00860_
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