Recently, a longtime employee of a local car dealership was terminated, allegedly due to a dispute with a co-worker and a subsequent failure to appear at work. The employee, believing that the termination was not due to the provided explanation given by the employer, but instead was motivated by his age, brought suit against his employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and state law. The federal district court ruled for the employer but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which oversees Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan) revived the case.
The employee at issue is a successful, veteran car salesman that worked at the employer’s dealership from 2005 to 2016. Nationally, the employee performed within the top 125 of 3,500 salesmen. The employee received numerous prestigious awards in recognition of his sales volume.
As an employee, this individual was an aggressive salesman who often came off as abrasive to his coworkers. Due to his actions and personality, as one of the oldest full-time salesmen at the time of his termination, the employee was often faced with inappropriate statements from his superiors and coworkers about his age. Eventually the employee and another co-worker got into a verbal altercation which ultimately resulted in the employee’s termination.
As noted above, believing the termination was due to his age, the employee filed suit alleging age discrimination. The employer subsequently moved for a judgment as a matter of law, which was granted by the District Court. Although no written opinion was issued, during oral arguments the District Court found that the record did not contain an adequate amount of evidence to support a claim for age discrimination.
Appellate Court’s Decision
As noted by the Appellate Court, under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, employers may not terminate an individual “because of such individual’s age.” A plaintiff may present either direct or circumstantial evidence to prove a violation of the Act. Regardless of the evidence presented, it is the plaintiff’s burden to prove that age was the ultimate reason for the employment termination. On appeal, the employee argued that he had presented both direct and circumstantial evidence which established that his age was the reason for his untimely termination.
In order for a plaintiff to establish a case for age discrimination they must show (1) they were a member of a protected group, (2) they were qualified for the position in question, (3) their employer took an adverse employment action against them, and (4) there are circumstances which support an inference of discrimination. Circumstances that can support such an inference include when an employer replaced the plaintiff with a younger employee or when the employer treated similarly situated non-protected employees more favorably.
Here, factors one through three were established by the employee in this matter as age is a protected class, he was unquestionably qualified for the position, and he suffered an adverse employment action – he was terminated. Therefore, the only disputed factor was whether the circumstances supported an inference of discrimination.
Reviewing the evidence, the Appellate Court found that the employee presented enough evidence to establish the fourth factor for his age discrimination claim. Specifically, the Court found that the employer had replaced the employee with a younger salesman and that other younger salesmen were treated better than the plaintiff. The Court found the employer’s argument, that the new younger employee was hired over a month after the former employee’s termination and therefore was not a direct replacement, to be unpersuasive.
Finding that the employee had established a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden then shifted to the employer to demonstrate that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination. To support its decision, the employer noted that the employee failed to appear for work without explanation on two days, had been in a verbal altercation with his co-workers, and had previous disciplinary warnings. The Court found this evidence sufficient to satisfy the employer’s burden of establishing a non-discriminatory reason for the termination.
As the employer satisfied its burden, the burden shifted back to the employee and required that he provide evidence showing the stated reasons for his termination were mere pretext. An employee can show pretext by demonstrating that the specified explanation for the termination either (1) had no basis in fact, (2) did not actually motive the termination, or (3) was insufficient to warrant the termination. Considering all of the evidence presented in a light most favorable to the former employee, the court found that a jury could reasonably reject the employer’s proffered reasons for the termination and determine that the employee’s age was the cause of his termination. For this reason, the Court reversed the District Court’s decision and sent the case back to the District Court for further proceedings.
As always, employers should be careful in handling employment termination decisions which effect those in a protected class. Further, if employees are making age discriminatory comments about another employee, those comments should be addressed and reprimanded if appropriate. Employers should review their policies regarding age and discrimination and, if necessary, seek experienced legal counsel to review and update any policies to make sure that they are in line with current law. Legal counsel can also be sought to provide advice as to the anticipated termination and to conduct training sessions with employees to ensure the employees know the company policy and how to treat other employees.
R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at email@example.com. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.