You Make the Call: Does Lab Manager Have a Valid Claim for Age Discrimination?

What’s At Stake

As lab manager involved in personnel decisions, you have a responsibility to ensure your lab complies with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which bans taking “adverse action against an employee because of his or her age.” So, being able to recognize what is and is not age discrimination would certainly come in handy. To test—and expand—your current understanding of ADEA, consider the following scenario, which is based on an actual case in which a lab manager claimed she was fired because of her age. Your assignment: Determine if she has a legally valid claim.

What Happened

A lab technician hired in 2005 was promoted to lab manager in 2009. Her performance evaluations indicated that she had “met or exceeded expectations.” By 2018, she was “one of the oldest and highest paid employees of” the lab. That year was also the year she got terminated. The manager claimed that this was no coincidence and that she was the victim of age discrimination. The fate of her case would come down to whether she could back that up. We’ll get into the details later; but first, we need to frame the legal context.

How Discrimination Litigation Works

As with any other employment discrimination claim, employees claiming age discrimination have the burden of making out what’s called a prima facie case. That doesn’t mean proving the claim; at this point in the proceedings, it just means making a strong enough case to persuade the judge that they have a chance to win and deserve the chance to go to trial.

While this might sound like something that only a litigator would care about, it actually has enormous real-world significance should your lab ever be sued for discrimination. Reason: If the employee doesn’t make out a prima facie case, you can get the court to dismiss the case on the spot; but if the employee does make out a prima facie case, you have to go to trial to defend yourself. And trials are unpredictable and risky (that’s why the vast majority of cases settle before trial). Accordingly, the negotiating leverage shifts in favor of the employee who is now in a stronger position to command money to settle the case.

What the ADEA Requires

There are four things employees must show to make out a prima facie case under ADEA:

  1. They’re over 40-years-old;
  2. They’re qualified for their job;
  3. They’ve suffered “an adverse employment action” at the hands of their employer; and
  4. There’s some evidence of a “causal connection” between their age and the adverse employment action.

 Meeting the first three prongs is usually a mere formality. It’s prongs three and four where most ADEA cases are decided. In other words, employees’ biggest challenge in making out a prima facie case is demonstrating that they have a shot at showing that being over age 40 didn’t diminish their skills or otherwise render them unqualified for their job and that the real reason they suffered the adverse action was, at least in part, due to their age.

 Applying the Rules to the Case

Now let’s look at the lab manager’s case, starting with the facts on which all sides agreed:

  • She was over age 40; and
  • She suffered an adverse employment action, namely, she was fired.

The court also ruled that the manager’s positive performance reviews was enough to show that she was qualified to do her job. So, the case came down to prong four. In deciding whether there was a causal connection between her age and her firing, the court would just assume that her version of events was true. The lab would get its chance to debunk those facts at trial when and if the manager made out a prima facie case.

The Manager’s Side of the Story

The problems began a year earlier, the manager contended. The lab had just implemented a new work share program. The manager defended the program when an employee confronted her over it. But the lab director fired the objecting employee while at the same time warning the manager that he could do the same to her. From that point on, the manager said she was “systematically phased out of management decisions” and that the director began demeaning her in front of co-workers, often referring to her as “irrelevant.” Then came a sexual harassment incident involving the director’s wife that the manager reported to HR, followed by threats from the director that caused the manager to tell HR that she feared for her safety.

You Make the Call: Did the Manager Meet Prong 4?

The court said no. Explanation: Even if the manager’s story was true, it wouldn’t be the basis of a valid claim for age discrimination. The manager alleges no facts “demonstrating a causal connection between her age and her firing,” the court reasoned. The only mention of age was the reference to her being one of the lab’s oldest employees and the director’s calling her irrelevant, evidence which was too “speculative” to support a finding of age discrimination. So, the court found that the manager didn’t make out a prima facie case and tossed the claim without a trial.

Merrick v. Franey Med. Lab, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 159454, Sept. 19, 2019

 

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