Suppose you are fired because, according to your manager, the company is
experiencing financial difficulties and it needs to reduce its overhead.
But also HR is informed that you are not a "team player", and
then you are replaced by a younger employee. Should that raise a red flag
crying out "age discrimination"? You bet.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recently
held that an employee could proceed to trial on his age discrimination and
retaliation claims because his former employer gave one reason when it
fired him and a different one after he began challenging the decision.
The court also challenged the employer's contention that a younger
employee didn't "replace" him when he took on most of the
former employee's former duties.
James Pierson was discharged from his management position at Quad/Graphics
Printing Corp. (QG) when he was 62 years old. QG was experiencing financial
trouble, so it implemented cost-cutting measures and began eliminating
unnecessary positions. Management determined that Pierson's position
could be eliminated in a reduction in force (RIF) because the facility
he managed probably would be closing or reducing operations and he would
no longer be needed.
During the termination interview, a manager read from a "script"
provided by human resources that explained that Pierson was being terminated
as part of a reduction in force. Yet the day before, the same manager
had informed an HR manager and two other employees that Pierson's
termination was based (at least in part) on his failure to be a team player.
The "team player" rationale was never explained to Pierson but
it appeared on the evaluation his manager completed.
After the termination, a 47-year-old employee assumed Pierson's job
duties and performed fewer of his own former duties. The 47-year-old was
the same employee against whom Pierson was evaluated at the time of his
termination. The younger employee even changed his work location in conjunction
with performing Pierson's former duties.
Pierson sued QG, alleging age discrimination and retaliation. After he
challenged his termination as discriminatory, QG shifted its reason for
his termination to the teamwork rationale — arguing that his performance,
rather than the possible closure of his facility due to economic considerations,
motivated the decision.
The district court dismissed Pierson's age discrimination and retaliation
claims without a trial, concluding that he couldn't show his termination
was based on any reason other than a RIF motivated by cost considerations.
Pierson appealed. The court found that Pierson's claims should go
to trial because of the employer's shifting reasons for his termination.
The changing rationale for the decision cast doubt on QG's stated
reason for the termination. That made it possible for Pierson to show
pretext — i.e., that the stated reason for his termination wasn't
the real reason and that age discrimination was the true reason.
In reaching that conclusion, the court noted that (1) Pierson's manager
told others that the termination was due to Pierson's failure to be
a team player and (2) the performance ranking completed by Pierson's
direct supervisor in conjunction with the termination gave Pierson the
lowest score possible for "teamwork." Given those facts, it
was unlikely that economic forces (the original reason given for the termination)
motivated the decision.
The takeaway? Employers often use the rationale of a "reduction in
force" due to economic reasons to justify the firing of older employees.
However, if the documented evidence for the firing conflict with that
rationale, and if you find that you are being replaced by a younger employee
with less experience, then there is a strong possibility that you have
been discriminated against because of your age. That is illegal.