A supervisor filed a lawsuit against his employer after his employer terminated him for allegedly placing a concealed camera in the office. The supervisor claimed that he was unlawfully terminated on account of his sex, in violation of Title VII, and age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana) was tasked with determining whether the termination was a violation of the ADEA.
As part of his duties, the supervisor supervised an entire department for his employer. During his employment, a manager complained to the supervisor about the behavior of another employee. The supervisor relayed the information to senior authorities and the employer opened an investigation into the allegations which concerned “highly inappropriate comments being made” in the workplace. During the investigation, the employer discovered that the supervisor had been present and even participated when sexually and racially inappropriate language was used in the workplace. The employer demoted the supervisor for his alleged involvement in fostering an inappropriate work environment.
A few months later, the supervisor allegedly placed a concealed camera in the department. Following this additional violation of company policy, the employer determined that the supervisor should be terminated.
After his termination, the supervisor filed a lawsuit alleging unlawful discrimination on account of his sex in violation of Title VII and age in violation of the ADEA. The federal district court ruled in favor of the employer on all claims. The employee appealed the ruling to the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but dropped his sex discrimination claim.
Appellate Court’s Decision
Federal law provides, under the ADEA, that it is “unlawful for an employer . . . to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s age.” The Fifth Circuit noted that to prove such a case, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: “(1) he was discharged; (2) he was qualified for the position; (3) he was within the protected class at the time of discharge; and (4) he was either i) replaced by someone outside the protected class, ii) replaced by someone younger, or iii) otherwise discharged because of his age.” Once a plaintiff shows this, the employer must show that it has a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the termination.
In ruling for the employer, the Fifth Circuit found that the supervisor’s basis for his claim was insufficient. In arguing that he was discriminated against on the basis of his age, the supervisor relied on testimony provided by his boss who stated that the supervisor “had not been adequately prepared or mentored” or “taught to be a leader”, and that the supervisor “struggled to engage and to learn more.” The supervisor claimed that these comments would allow a jury to determine that he was terminated because he was “old and slow.”
In rejecting this claim, the Fifth Circuit noted that, to prove age discrimination, the decision-maker’s comments must be “sufficiently suggestive of age bias.” By way of example, the Fifth Circuit stated that referring to a plaintiff as an “old goat” or describing his appearance as “old man clothes” could suggest age bias.
As the Fifth Circuit points out, just because an employee claims that they were discriminated against, does not mean that they actually were. Specific evidence is required to advance discrimination claims. An employer’s decision to terminate an employee for in appropriate conduct or poor performance will not sufficiently support an allegation of discrimination where bias does not exist. Relatedly, it is important for employers to not only ensure there is appropriate and sufficient documentation that supports termination decisions, but also to train supervisors and employees on discrimination as a means of preventing it from emanating into the workplace.
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 protected] 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.