Bias Claim Revived Against NFL’s Chiefs

     JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) – Missouri’s Supreme Court on Tuesday revived a former maintenance manager’s lawsuit against the Kansas City Chiefs, who he claims fired him because he was 61.
     G. Steven Cox worked for the Chiefs as a maintenance manager from 1998 until he was fired in 2010. During trial, Cox presented evidence that in 2008 then-Chiefs President Carl Peterson told another employee there would be changes in the front office because new CEO Clark Hunt “wanted to go in a more youthful direction.”
     After Petersen resigned in 2008, several front office personnel were replaced by younger candidates, including stadium operations chief Steve Schneider, who was fired at 51.
     After Schneider’s ouster, Cox took on additional responsibilities before David Young (34) and Brandon Hamilton (39) were hired to fill the newly created positions of vice president of stadium operations and director of facilities, respectively. Cox, then 61, was not invited to interview for the new positions.
     He was fired on Oct. 14, 2010, on grounds of poor performance and insubordination. He was replaced by a 37-year-old.
     A jury ruled for the Chiefs after a state court refused to let Cox’s attorneys enter testimony from 17 other former Chiefs employees. The court found the testimony inadmissible because the witnesses were fired by different managers and worked in different departments, so they were not similarly situated to Cox.
     But in a 5-2 ruling Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court found the court misapplied the legal standard of the so-called “me too” witnesses.
     “(T)he record does not reflect that the trial court engaged in a witness-by-witness reexamination of its order when presented with the new facts in each offer of proof,” Judge Laura Denvir Stith wrote for the majority. “Rather, it issued a single ruling that it would not admit the testimony of multiple witnesses for whom the plaintiff made offers of proof, and did so without reference to the specific facts elicited in each or any offer.”
     The court also struck down the Chiefs’ argument that even if the court did err in its ruling, the secondary reason for exclusion still applied. That reason is that the witnesses were not similarly situated to Cox.
     “In the context of ‘me too’ evidence such as that excluded here, the plaintiff’s claim of relevance is just the opposite – that he and others were treated similarly by being disciplined or fired and that the dominant common factor between himself and the others who were disciplined or fired is their membership in the protected group,” Stith wrote.
     The supreme court also found that the trial court erred in excluding the testimony of Herman Suhr, the Chiefs former field security supervisor. Suhr claimed he overheard then-Chiefs General Manager Scott Pioli say he needed to make major changes in the organization because so many employees “are over 40 years old.”
     That “is supportive of Mr. Cox’s theory of the case that his firing was part of a companywide policy of age discrimination carried out by the highest level executives,” according to the supreme court.
     “The evidence that Mr. Pioli made this statement in close proximity to the time that Mr. Cox and others over 40 were fired and replaced with younger employees is, for the reasons already noted, relevant circumstantial evidence of what Mr. Cox alleges to be the motivation behind his firing,” Stith wrote.
     Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge and Judges George W. Draper III, Richard B. Teitelman and Mary R. Russell concurred.
     Judges Zel M. Fischer and Paul C. Wilson dissented. They found the probative value of the witnesses’ testimony, while relevant, was outweighed by the prejudicial effect of confusing the jury about the specific act of discrimination for which the Chiefs were on trial, and therefore the state court did not abuse its discretion.
     Judgment was vacated and the case remanded.

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