Court Blocks $13 Million Gender Discrimination Verdict Against UCLA

By Joanne Deschenaux May 22, 2020
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UCLA campus

A professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) sued the university for gender discrimination. A jury sided with the professor and awarded her more than $13 million in damages, but a California appeals court reversed the verdict, concluding that the trial court committed a series of "grave errors" that significantly prejudiced the university's right to a fair trial.

Before the trial began, the court told jurors that their duty was to stand in the shoes of Martin Luther King Jr. and bend the "arc of the moral universe" toward justice. The judge then spoke about invidious discrimination through the years, referencing civil rights leaders who had marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1960s as well as Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Atticus Finch, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote and the legalization of gay marriage.

During the trial, the court allowed the jury to hear a long list of discrimination complaints from across the entire University of California system that were not connected to the professor's circumstances or her theory of the case. The court also allowed the jury to learn of the contents and conclusions of a report documenting that racial discrimination occurred throughout the UCLA campus.

Use of 'Me, Too' Evidence

Evidence that an employer committed the same type of discrimination against other employees as it did against a plaintiff is called "me, too" evidence. Such evidence, the appeals court said, is only admissible to prove the employer's intent and motive with respect to the plaintiff's own protected class.

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In addition, the admissibility of "me, too" evidence hinges on how closely related the evidence is to the plaintiff's circumstances and theory of the case. "Me, too" evidence is never admissible to prove an employer's propensity to discriminate. Yet, that is exactly what the trial court allowed the professor to do in this case, the court concluded.

The trial court allowed the professor to use a "laundry list" of anonymous, undefined allegations of discrimination at UCLA to convince the jury her own complaints were legitimate. This evidence should never have been presented to the jury, the appeals court said.

The admission of this "me, too" evidence, along with the court's opening statement to the jurors, were not harmless errors, the appeals court said. It characterized the trial judge's prejudicial remarks at the outset of the trial as a "stirring call to action which stacked the deck against UCLA."

These errors by the trial court created an atmosphere in which UCLA did not receive a fair trial, the appellate court said in reversing the jury's award.  

Pinter-Brown v. Regents of University of California, Calif. Ct. App., No. B290086 (April 23, 2020).

Professional Pointer: "Me, too" evidence may be admissible and relevant to prove an employer's state of mind in an employment discrimination case. Generally, the relevance of this evidence is fact-based and depends on many factors, including how closely related the evidence is to the plaintiff's circumstances and theory of the case.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 

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