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Shifting reasons for firing may suggest pretext

Ever since a 2009 Supreme Court opinion was handed down in favor employers regarding the burden of proof in ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act) cases, employees who believe they have been discriminated against on the basis of age have had a tough road proving their cases. Many of them are dismissed before trial, as was a case highlighted by the AARP.

Essentially, a man who was a facilities manager who was 60 years old was fired from his job. The company initially said that it was eliminating his position. However, the company eventually filled his position with a person who was 15 years younger. The man sued, and the company claimed that it properly terminated him under its “reduction in force” protocols.  A trial court agreed and dismissed his case. 

Upon appeal, the court found that the man had provided enough evidence to create a fact question as to the actual reason why he was let go. The court focused on the differing reasons the company gave for his termination. Apparently, the company first said that the man was fired due to reductions of force, but other pieces of evidence suggested that he was not a “team player.” The court reasoned that the shifting justifications raise questions about the proffered reasons for termination and suggest that they may be pretext to hide the real reasons for his firing.

The story is important in two respects; with an aging workforce, the potential for more ADEA claims may increase. With stricter standards, it may be more difficult for potential plaintiffs to succeed. Also, it creates more of a need to discuss one’s situation with an experienced employment law attorney so that they can understand the strength of their case, and the likelihood of success should the matter go to trial.

Source: Aarp.org, “Changing reasons for firing may be evidence of age discrimination,” May 22, 2014

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