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Does "You Are Not a Team Player" Really Mean "You Are Too Old"?

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.
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