Labor and Employment: Employee’s “Trick” Results in a Halloween Bag of Rocks From the Jury

October 18, 2015

By: Howard M. Miller

In prior articles, we’ve sought wisdom from Sun Tzu, an audit of Santa’s Workshop, a theoretical application of the faithless servant doctrine to A-Rod, and Pooh Corner for some Zen advice on day-to-day employment matters.  Our next stop on the Employment Law Express is a seasonal walk through the Pumpkin Patch with the Peanuts gang.

As only he could, Linus explained the criteria for a visit from the Great Pumpkin:

Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere.  He’s gotta pick this one. . . .  You can look all around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy.

Alas, like other astute philosophers of historical significance, Linus is likely keenly aware that the importance of sincerity is not limited to the pumpkin patch, but has broad application, even reaching into the black box of the jury room in an employment discrimination case.  For those plaintiffs hoping for a bag of treats from the Great Pumpkin (in the form of cash), they need to be mindful for signs of hypocrisy — a lesson painfully learned by the plaintiff in Housley v. Spirit Aerosystems, Inc., which was just recently decided by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on October 9, 2015.

The plaintiff was a Boeing employee who was not hired by Spirit Aerosystems when Spirit acquired the facilities where she worked.  She sued for age discrimination, hoping to lure a bounty of treats from the proverbial Great Pumpkin (a federal jury, to be precise), in part by relying on secretly recorded conversations with her supervisors during which she was asked if she was old enough to retire.  On the surface, the plaintiff had found a perfect patch from which to receive her treats (i.e., “He’s gotta pick this one” — just listen to the tape).  But, was the patch sincere and free of hypocrisy?  The jury thought not, and rendered a verdict in favor of Spirit.  During the trial, Spirit exposed the plaintiff’s hypocrisy by using the fact that she had secretly recorded conversations with her supervisors as after-acquired evidence of wrongdoing that negated any alleged damages.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit refused to find that the lower court committed any reversible error in allowing Spirit to use the recordings for this purpose.  In sage, Linusesque prose, the Court reasoned:  “The recordings in this case turned out to be a double-edged sword.  Housley wanted the jury to know about them for obvious reasons and considering her active promotion of their admission she is not now in a position to complain about getting what she wanted.  Spirit turned the tables on her by promoting their use for a different, albeit limited, purpose — after-acquired evidence of wrongdoing.  In the end Housley was obliged to take the bitter with the sweet.”

Halloween, like a suit for employment discrimination, is goal-oriented — a pursuit in reaching for “the sweet.”  Sometimes this goal seems easily obtainable, as noted by the Peanuts characters:

Lucy:  All you have to do is walk up to a house, ring the doorbell, and say “tricks or treats.”

Sally:  Are you sure it’s legal?

Yes, in many jurisdictions (including New York), secretly recording a supervisor in a conversation to which the employee is a party is just as legal as knocking on a door and asking for candy. And, on the surface, the recording (depending on its content) should result in the receipt of treats with no more effort than knocking on a door. But not everyone gets a treat. Tricksters may find themselves walking away with nothing but a bag of rocks.

So, the lesson for this Halloween season is that employers defending against employment discrimination claims, like Spirit, should always be on the lookout for a smoking gun that, on closer inspection, is nothing more than a Halloween prop ready to backfire if just given enough room to do so.

To learn more, contact Howard M. Miller at 516.267.6318 or hmiller@bsk.com.