Termination Reasons Might Have Been Pretext for Age Discrimination

 

By R. Jason Patterson May 20, 2020
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An employer's stated reasons for firing an employee, which included the reliance on incomplete disciplinary documents and stale discipline, might have been pretext for age discrimination, according to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A longtime car salesperson sued his former employer, Huntington Ford, for firing him allegedly because of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Michigan's Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act.  

The plaintiff worked at the Huntington Ford car dealership for more than 10 years. At the time of his termination, he was 63 years old and the oldest salesperson at the dealership. The plaintiff was a high-performing salesperson, winning multiple awards from the Ford Motor Company and Huntington Ford for his sales volume. During his time at Huntington, he was formally disciplined twice.  

Despite his success as a salesperson, the plaintiff began having issues with his supervisors and the general manager. According to the plaintiff, he was subjected to repeated inappropriate statements regarding his age, including being called "grandpa," "dinosaur" and "over the hill."

The plaintiff also claimed management expedited younger employees' paperwork over his. A week prior to his termination, he stated a manager told the plaintiff that he was too old to have a desk in the front of the showroom and that the station should be assigned to someone younger. When the plaintiff complained about this comment, nothing was done in response.

About a week after the plaintiff complained, he was involved in an altercation with a support staff worker regarding an unsuccessful trade-in deal. At some point during the altercation, the co-worker shoved the plaintiff.

After an investigation, the co-worker resigned. The plaintiff was called into a meeting and was informed he was being suspended. According to the plaintiff, his managers told him he was being suspended for a week. He refused to sign the suspension notice because it did not indicate the length of the suspension.

The plaintiff returned to the dealership one week later and was told he was terminated for failing to report or call in for work during the previous week. Huntington also informed the plaintiff that he was being terminated because of the dispute with the co-worker and his ongoing disciplinary issues.

The district court dismissed the lawsuit, stating that the plaintiff failed to provide facts indicating the employer's stated reasons for termination were not legitimate.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Older Workers]

The 6th Circuit reversed the district court's decision, holding that the plaintiff provided evidence that Huntington's reasons for termination could have been pretext for age discrimination. Accordingly, he was entitled to have a jury decide whether he was discriminated against because of his age.

In reversing the district court, the 6th Circuit focused on several steps the employer took that could suggest its termination decision was due to age discrimination. For example, Huntington fired the plaintiff partly because he failed to show up to work after he was suspended, even though no return date was indicated on the suspension notice.

In addition, the court found that Huntington's reliance on unrelated discipline from four years prior could indicate Huntington's intent to discriminate against the plaintiff because of his age.

Finally, the court considered the fact that these rationales for termination occurred on the backdrop of the plaintiff allegedly experiencing constant and recent insults regarding his age from managers who ultimately decided to fire him. The 6th Circuit reversed the district court, and the plaintiff was granted a chance to take the case to trial.      

Willard v. Huntington Ford Inc., 6th Cir., No. 19-1763 (March 11, 2020).

Professional Pointer: Employers should provide employees with clear guidance regarding the scope, duration and any conditions of the discipline workers receive.

R. Jason Patterson is an attorney with Franczek PC, the Worklaw Network® member firm in Chicago.

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