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8th Circuit: Age Discrimination Claim Fails Despite Age-Based Comments

By Scott M. Wich  10/19/2007
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10/19/07 3:45 PM

8th Circuit: Age Discrimination Claim Fails Despite Age-Based Comments

By Scott M. Wich

Employers able to articulate indisputable, truthful reasons for adverse employment actions also have the legal advantage of securing summary dismissals of discrimination actions, an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision shows.

In June 2003, Target Corp. hired 56-year-old Richard Carraher as a recruiter in its Minneapolis headquarters. Three months later, he was assigned to be an executive recruiter for Target’s Southern region, from Texas to Florida. Carraher continued to fulfill this role from his office in Minneapolis.

In August 2004, Target reorganized its recruiting operations so that its recruiters would be relocated to their regions of responsibility. Carraher expressed a disinterest in moving to Texas, preferring to search for a new position within the company.

After failing to find a position, Carraher allegedly contacted the company in late January 2005 to inquire about relocating to Texas. Following some discussions, Carraher purportedly sent a letter to Target alleging that his termination was “impending” and that it was age-related. He stopped coming to work after Feb. 4, 2005. On March 4, 2005, he was terminated.

Carraher sued Target, claiming age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and corresponding Minnesota state law. Target asserted that Carraher walked off the job in February 2005 and failed to return for a month.

Carraher tried to demonstrate this reason to be false by highlighting that Target sent him a letter in March 2005 stating that the company had continued him on payroll during his consideration of the severance agreement but that, since he did not sign it, he would be removed as of March 4, 2005.

The appellate court affirmed a decision of the district court, granting summary judgment in favor of Target. The court concluded that the substance of the letter sent by Target did not give reason to question whether the explanation offered by Target for his discharge—job abandonment—was untrue.

The court also dismissed Carraher’s argument that certain alleged comments by Target executives supported a claim for age discrimination. Among other things, Target executives were alleged to have made comments that “top” Target executives are “young and energetic” and that older, experienced employees did not have a “fire in their belly.” The court concluded that such comments, even if true, were legally insufficient because Carraher did not show a causal connection between the comments and the ultimate discharge decision. The comments had been made more than five months prior to Carraher’s discharge, by individuals with no decision-making authority over the discharge and with regard to people other than Carraher.

Carraher v. Target Corp., 8th Cir., No. 06-3857 (Sept. 19, 2007).

Professional Pointer: Careful attention to the basis for an anticipated termination can lend great confidence to the HR professional. In addition to providing legal support to defend such actions in litigation, such analysis helps address workplace issues that might have led to the failure of the employee in the company setting, providing information to identify and improve on latent workforce concerns.

Scott M. Wich is an attorney with the law firm of Clifton Budd & DeMaria LLP in New York.

Related Resource:

Termination Toolkit

Quick Link:

SHRM Online Workplace Law Focus Area

Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.

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