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Mass.: 70-Year-Old Employee Goes to Trial on Age Bias Claim

By Diane Cadrain  7/10/2014
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A long-term employee may have been a victim of age discrimination when her employer demoted her without explanation and put a younger employee in her job, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled.

Diane Younker worked for the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) for 42 years, starting as a social worker and rising to become the director of an office in Somerville. Eventually the Somerville office was merged with another office in Revere, creating a higher volume of clients and congestion in the reception area.

In the spring of 2009, thinking that another employee, Paul Sutliff, would do a better job resolving the traffic flow issues, the DTA put Sutliff in the position of director (ousting Younker) and made Younker assistant director. She was 70 at the time. Sutliff was 53.

Viewing the demotion as a constructive dismissal, Younker resigned, but sued the DTA for age discrimination under state law. The DTA asked the court to dismiss the case at an early stage.

The court decided that Younker had made out a good initial claim of age discrimination by showing that she was a member of a protected class who performed her job at an acceptable level and was terminated, while another person outside the protected class, and with similar qualifications, was hired.

As justification for its decision to demote Younker, the DTA presented no internal documentation of its decision, only an affidavit from Commissioner Julia Kehoe, stating that she had concluded that management restructuring would improve the problems in the Revere office. It also presented testimony from another manager, Assistant Commissioner John Augeri, about the traffic problems and its efforts to deal with them. The court accepted the DTA’s evidence as a legitimate, nondiscriminatory justification for its decision.

Next the court set out to determine whether the DTA’s evidence was actually a smokescreen for discrimination. On this issue, the court noted that Commissioner Kehoe had not put forward an explanation as to why Younker was thought inadequate to perform the task before her, or why Sutliff was considered a better choice. The court did note Augeri’s testimony about the office problems and Younker’s alleged failure to deal with them, but also noted that Younker’s testimony contradicted his. For example, Younker stated that she was never given a set of implementations to institute and never received a complaint about her management of the office.

Viewing these inconsistencies, the court stated that if a failure to address the waiting room issues was the true reason for Younker’s demotion, she would have been told about the problem either beforehand or when she was demoted. After all, the court stated, she was a 42 year employee of the DTA, and one held in high enough regard to be chosen to head the newly combined Revere office. Younker’s evidence, the court said, raised a genuine issue whether the reason proffered by the DTA for her demotion was the true reason. The court declined to dismiss the case, stating that a jury could decide what actually occurred prior to the demotion with respect to the waiting area, whether the DTA's proffered reason for the promotion was a pretext and, if so, whether the true reason for the plaintiff's demotion was age discrimination.

Younker v. Department of Transitional Assistance, Mass., No. No. 13-P-855 (June 6, 2014).

Diane Cadrain is an attorney who has been writing about employment law issues for more than 20 years.

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