Termination Due to Lack of Desired Skills Not Age Bias

By Erin L. Winters Mar 23, 2017
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​A Minnesota-based manufacturer's dismissal of an employee because of concerns about his skills did not constitute age discrimination, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled. The court rejected the employee's claim that his replacement by two temporary workers proved discrimination.

Optomec Inc., an additive manufacturer for 3-D printed electronics and metals, hired 54-year-old Thomas Nash for an internship position. Several months later, the company offered him a full-time position as the sole laboratory technician at the company. John Lees, Optomec's vice president of engineering, made the hiring decision, despite Nash's "fairly tepid" evaluation as an intern. Lees was five years younger than Nash.

Over the next six months, Lees became concerned that as the business grew, it needed a higher level of functionality than Nash could provide. He concluded that Nash could not "take it to the next level" and ended his employment. Nash's tenure with the company lasted less than one year.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Involuntary Termination of Employment in the United States]

At the time Lees ended Nash's employment, Lees informed Nash that the decision was not performance-related. A few days later, Nash requested a written statement outlining the basis of the termination of his employment, as allowed for by Minnesota law. In its response, the company concluded that Nash did not have the skills necessary for the position.

Nash filed a lawsuit against Optomec alleging age discrimination. Optomec sought dismissal of Nash's claim and filed for summary judgment. The district court granted Optomec's motion and concluded that Nash had failed to establish that Optomec ended his employment because of his age. Nash appealed.

Similar to the lower court, the 8th Circuit concluded that the "overarching reason" for Nash's firing was that he did not have the "skill set and potential" the company needed to support its anticipated growth. Further, the court found that there was insufficient evidence as to whether Optomec's stated reason for the termination of Nash's employment was pretext.

With his appeal, Nash highlighted the fact that after the end of his employment, Optomec hired two younger employees as his replacements. The individuals were temporary workers. The court noted that although hiring younger employees to fill a vacated position may allow for an inference of discrimination, a trier of fact must look to the permanent replacement as opposed to temporary workers.

In sum, the appeals court concluded that Nash's short period of employment coupled with Lees' slight age difference further supported the finding that discrimination did not occur.

Thomas Nash v. Optomec, Inc., 8th Cir., No. 16-2186 (March 1, 2017).

Professional Pointer: Employers should document all employee performance matters in order to dispute claims of discrimination.

Erin L. Winters is an attorney with Foster Employment Law, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Oakland, Calif.

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