A trial court's decision to admit into evidence a Broward County Civil Rights Division "no reasonable cause" determination was an abuse of discretion and constituted reversible error, according to a recent decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeals.
The plaintiff in the case, Cameshia Byrd, alleged that her employer, BT Foods, Inc., a Wendy's franchisee, terminated her employment because she was HIV positive. She alleged violations of the Florida Omnibus AIDS Act, section 760.50(3)(b), Florida Statutes, and the Florida Civil Rights Act, section 760.10(1)(a). BT Foods asserted that it took Byrd off the work schedule because she failed to produce a doctor's note following an absence from work, and that Byrd never produced a doctor's note and never returned to work.
At trial, over the objection of Byrd's attorney, the trial court admitted into evidence a "no reasonable cause" determination that had been issued by the Broward County Civil Rights Division. The BCCRD had determined that BT foods "discharged the Charging Party because she did not produce a note from from her doctor's office or hospital and not because of her medical condition." Defense counsel highlighted this fact during closing argument, and the jury returned a verdict for BT Foods.
On appeal, the Fourth DCA noted that although the federal public records exception to the hearsay rule included factual findings resulting from an investigation, Florida's public records exception was narrower. On this basis alone, the determination letter might have been inadmissible. But Byrd's attorney did not assert hearsay as the basis for his objection at trial.
Instead, Byrd's attorney argued that the probative value of the letters was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Rejecting a per se rule on this point, the court held that the admissibility of reasonable cause determinations is an issue best left to the discretion of the trial judge. Nevertheless, in this instance, the Fourth DCA ruled that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the determination letter "because the conclusory nature of the BCCRD’s determination letter left it with little probative value when compared to the substantial prejudicial effect it may have had on the jury’s ultimate assessment of Byrd’s credibility and the pivotal determination as to whether Byrd had indeed provided a doctor’s note to her employer."
The Byrd decision highlights the relatively unimportant role that agency determinations typically play at trial. Whether an agency rules there is "reasonable cause" or "no reasonable cause" (or, in the EEOC's case, that it is "unable to conclude" there was a violation of the statutes), the determination is likely to be inadmissible anyway. Most courts seem to realize that agency investigations of discrimination complaints are often cursory and their determinations unreliable. The limited probative value of these determinations is likely to be outweighed by their prejudicial effect on jurors, who tend to assume, erroneously, that an agency has conducted a thorough investigation before issuing its determination. Lawyers and judges usually know better. And in all fairness to the agencies, given the number of discrimination charges filed every year, a thorough investigation of every charge is simply not possible.