Reporting from San Francisco — An age discrimination lawsuit that charges Google Inc. with firing a manager deemed too old for the Internet company drew sharp questions from the California Supreme Court on Wednesday in a case sure to affect other age bias claims.
A lawyer for the dismissed employee, Brian Reid, told the state high court that company e-mails showed Google preferred younger workers.
Reid, who was hired as director of operations and engineering when he was 52 and fired two years later, was told by his supervisor that he was not "a cultural fit" for the company, said his lawyer, Paul J. Killion.
Killion told the court that a former Google recruiter testified that the term was used in company circles only to describe older workers.
Google maintains that Reid was fired because his position was eliminated. Paul W. Crane Jr., representing Google, argued that courts should not decide the merit of lawsuits based on random, discriminatory comments by employees who were not involved in the firing decision.
Reid has said that colleagues referred to him as an "old fuddy duddy" and an "old man." He said a high-level manager told him he was "fuzzy," "sluggish," "lethargic" and did not "display a sense of urgency."
Justice Carlos R. Moreno said that excluding the presentation of evidence of prejudiced comments by co-workers might "totally usurp the function of the jury to decide" whether such statements were relevant.
But Chief Justice Ronald M. George noted that a failure to explore new ideas or to be imaginative could have nothing to do with age and asked whether the fact that Reid was already in his 50s when he was hired undermined his case.
Crane said it did. There is "nothing age-related" in being lethargic or sluggish, Crane said, noting a teenager sprawled out on the couch in the evenings could be described by those adjectives.
Reid, a former associate professor at Stanford who holds a PhD in computer science, was told in his only written performance evaluation at Google that he consistently met expectations.
The evaluation said his goal should be to adapt to Google's culture.
"Right or wrong, Google is simply different: Younger contributors, inexperienced first line managers, and the super fast pace are just a few examples of the environment," his supervisor wrote, according to legal documents.
An appeals court ruled that Reid had presented sufficient evidence of age discrimination to have his case brought before a jury.
Google appealed, and the state high court will determine the kind of evidence courts may consider in deciding whether a case should go before a jury.
Reid's lawsuit included statistical evidence that he said showed older workers received worse evaluations and lower bonuses than younger employees.
A decision by the state high court is due in 90 days.