WASHINGTON – A unanimous Supreme Court (search) has ruled that circumstantial evidence alone can convict companies of discrimination, as long as there's enough to convince a reasonable jury.
The 9-0 decision Monday overrode the Bush administration, which had urged the court to side with the Las Vegas casino company, Caesars Palace (search), in a discrimination case involving a female former forklift operator.
The administration wanted to make it more difficult to sue under a federal anti-discrimination law.
Catharina Costa claimed she was fired from an all-male warehouse because of her sex and other reasons as well. A jury agreed and ordered Caesars Palace to pay her more than $364,000.
The casino company, backed by business groups along with the administration, urged the justices to require workers like Costa to provide direct evidence of discrimination, which requires proof based on personal knowledge or observation. Such evidence can be difficult to produce.
An employee "need only present sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude, by a preponderance of the evidence, that `race, color, religion, sex or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice,"' Justice Clarence Thomas (search) wrote in siding with Costa.
Eric Schnapper, a University of Washington law school professor who represented Costa, said the ruling should make companies pay more attention to discrimination complaints.
"Now it's going to be easier to win these cases. Employers are going to have to be careful about their practices," Schnapper said.
Robert Stewart, spokesman for Park Place Entertainment, the parent company for Caesars, said the Supreme Court seemed to change the rules for lawsuits. "It appears that many employers accused of workplace discrimination will be considered guilty until they can prove themselves innocent," he said.
Costa claimed she was stalked and treated differently because of her sex before she was fired in 1994.
The case is Desert Palace Inc. v. Costa, 02-679.
Also Monday, the court said it will decide whether Los Angeles can go beyond the federal Clean Air Act to impose tougher antismog rules for city buses, airport shuttles, taxis and other vehicles.
The court agreed to hear an appeal from oil companies and diesel engine manufacturers who claim that local pollution rules conflict with national standards. The appeal argued that the national Clean Air Act should take precedence over local rules for new car emissions.
The case could settle an issue that has been most prominent in southern California, with its infamous smog, but which also applies in other polluted areas. California often is in the forefront of anti-pollution efforts, and other states or cities piggyback on programs or innovations that work in California.
At issue are anti-pollution rules for public and private fleets of at least 15 vehicles. The rules require fleet operators to buy only low-emission or alternative-fuel vehicles when replacing or expanding their fleets. Alternatives to gasoline or diesel fuel include natural gas, propane and electricity.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the rules last year.
The case is Engine Manufacturers Association v. South Coast Air Quality Management District, 02-1343.