Employee Can Keep $2.5M Award in Age and Gender Bias Case

By Joanne Deschenaux June 4, 2018
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A manufacturer claimed that it eliminated a quality control supervisor's position during a departmental reorganization, but the California Court of Appeal upheld a $2.5 million damage award to the discharged employee, finding that there was sufficient evidence to prove age and gender bias.

Evidence showed that managers overseeing the reorganization made disparaging remarks about women and older employees and that a younger, male employee took over most of the fired worker's job duties.

The employer manufactures parts for the aerospace industry. The plaintiff worked in the quality assurance department at the company's Westminster, Calif., plant. She worked for the company for 23 years at the time of her firing in 2012.

The plaintiff had helped set up the quality assurance department at Westminster, where she supervised seven inspectors. Her job duties consisted of directing all the jobs sent to quality assurance for inspection and prioritizing the jobs according to the customers' delivery dates. She received uniformly positive performance reviews and was never disciplined.

Sometime around 2005, the plaintiff's supervisor hired an assistant to help with inspections. The assistant was about age 18 or 19 and had no prior relevant experience, and the plaintiff trained him.

In March 2012, during a reorganization of the quality assurance department, managers at Westminster decided to eliminate the plaintiff's position. They claimed that the decision was based entirely on financial considerations, and that her duties could be redistributed to existing employees and performed at a lower cost.

According to the employer, it did not hire anyone to replace her. However, after she left, her assistant assumed many of her duties, and in January 2014, he became a quality control supervisor.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Involuntary Employment Termination in California]

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit, claiming gender and age discrimination. At trial, she argued to the jury that the employer's reasons for eliminating her position and firing her were a pretext for discrimination because the younger male worker took over her position after she left. This established, she said, that her position had not been eliminated.

The jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff's favor, awarding her $1.5 million in compensatory economic damages and $7 million in punitive damages. The court reduced the punitive damages award to $1 million.  

The employer appealed, arguing that the evidence established that it fired her based on a business decision: Her position was redundant and could be more efficiently performed at a lower cost by existing employees.

The appellate court disagreed and affirmed the trial court's award of damages.

Although several employees testified that the plaintiff's firing was a neutral business decision brought about by restructuring and financial needs, significant evidence also contradicted this explanation and suggested age and gender animus, the court said.  

During the reorganization, upper management made numerous derogatory comments about "old guard," "legacy" people and "matriarch style." These references specifically included the plaintiff and reasonably suggested animosity against her based on age and gender stereotypes, the court said. The comments also suggested animosity to having a mature woman such as the plaintiff in a supervisory position, the court added. This evidence, the court concluded, cast doubt on the employer's claim that it fired her without any consideration of her age or gender.

Furthermore, the evidence showed that although the younger male employee may not have assumed all of her prior duties, he did assume the basic functions of her position—ensuring quality control.

The appellate court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's finding that the plaintiff's age and gender were substantial motivating factors in her termination.

Torres v. B/E Aerospace Inc., Calif. Ct. App., No. B278517 (May 16, 2018).

Professional Pointer: This case shows how courts analyze whether claims that an employer's stated reason for discharging an employee are really a pretext for unlawful discrimination. The disparaging comments that managers made, along with the fact that a younger man assumed most of the plaintiff's job duties, called into question the company's assertion that its decision to fire the plaintiff was based entirely on economic considerations.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.  

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