The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated an age discrimination case brought by a 57-year-old sales employee whose former supervisor allegedly made numerous age-biased comments prior to firing him. At issue in the case was whether the employee, Richard Blair, had presented enough evidence of age bias by his supervisor to survive his former employer’s motion for summary judgment and take his case to a jury trial.
Blair began working for his employer, Henry Filters Inc. (HFI), in 1986 when he was a 41-year-old sales engineer.
In 2000, John Tsolis became Blair’s boss as HFI’s vice president of sales. According to the court’s opinion, Tsolis was, by all accounts, “a rather unpleasant character” who liked to refer to himself as “the Terminator” and who frequently threatened to fire employees.
In 2001, HFI’s parent company decided to consolidate the sales activities among HFI and two other corporate siblings. As part of this consolidation, certain sales employees were reassigned. Tsolis met with Blair and a 33-year-old co-worker at the time and directed them to switch accounts between Ford and GM. Blair was left with the less-profitable GM account. He recalled that Tsolis remarked that Blair was “too old” to service the Ford account anymore because Ford’s buyers were younger and more athletic. Blair remembered too that Tsolis threatened him with termination if he told anyone the reason offered for the reassignment.
Tsolis also allegedly referred to Blair as “the old man” at sales meetings, and he once allegedly joked at a client meeting that the “old guy” (an apparent reference to Blair) couldn’t make it up the stairs.
From 2001-2003, HFI experienced a financial downturn. In that time period, HFI terminated 67 employees and did not replace 24 others, although there was no clear plan in place for a reduction in force.
In early August 2003, without other warning, Tsolis telephoned Blair while he was on vacation to inform him that his employment was terminated. Tsolis did not give a reason. Blair was 57 at the time.
Around the same time that Blair was terminated, HFI also discharged a 37-year-old salesman and a 39-year-old secretary. A 42-year-old co-worker took over most of Blair’s accounts, and HFI did not immediately hire anyone to replace Blair.
Within four months of Blair’s termination, however, HFI did hire a man in his 20s to work in sales, although it was not clear whether that person took over any of Blair’s former accounts. Blair also learned later that Tsolis and his boss had discussed the need for “a younger sales force” a few months prior to Blair’s termination.
Blair filed a lawsuit against HFI in 2004 in federal district court in Detroit. He claimed that his termination was motivated by age discrimination in violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Michigan’s state-law counterpart. The district court eventually dismissed the case before trial in spite of the evidence of Tsolis’s bias, finding that Tsolis was not the authorized decision-maker for Blair’s discharge. Consequently, the court found, Tsolis’ apparent bias could not be connected to Blair’s termination.
On appeal to the 6th Circuit, Blair contended that Tsolis’ comments and bias were direct or at least circumstantial evidence that his termination could have been motivated by age bias. With great detail, the court considered that only Tsolis’s comment about needing “a younger sales force” could be connected to Blair’s termination, but even then only circumstantially because it was not obvious that Tsolis directly considered Blair’s termination in that context. Thus, the court determined that Tsolis’ comments, obviously biased though they may have been, could be viewed only as circumstantial evidence that Blair’s termination was motivated by age bias.
Still, the court found the evidence to be sufficient for Blair to take his case to trial, particularly in light of the fact that HFI could not clearly explain any organized plan for a workforce reduction once it began terminating and not replacing employees in the 2001-2003 timeframe.
For all of these reasons, the 6th Circuit reversed the dismissal of Blair’s age discrimination claims.
Blair v. Henry Filters Inc. , 6th Cir., No. 05-2437 (Oct. 15, 2007).
Professional Pointer: The combination of evidence of biased remarks from the plaintiff employee’s direct supervisor with HFI’s failure to clearly explain an organized, nondiscriminatory basis for its long-term reduction in force from 2001-2003 was a powerful factor in the employee’s favor. Human resource professionals should stress in all management training the importance of avoiding biased statements in the workplace and of careful long-term workforce planning.
James B. Thelen is an attorney with the law firm Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC in Lansing, Mich.