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Terminating the "Old Man" May Not Be Age Discrimination


Many cases of employment discrimination involve allegations of comments that would tend to show bias toward a protected group. For instance, the use of racial slurs in a race discrimination case can be used to show the racial animus necessary to win the claim. Similarly, sexually offensive comments are helpful to prove a sexual harassment or gender discrimination claim. The reality, however, is that not every offensive or biased comment is sufficient to win a case.

Company Owner Loses Job After Selling His Company

In a recent Fifth Circuit case, Squyres v. The Heico Companies, LLC, the owner sold his company assets after negotiating a very profitable 3-year employment contract. As the contract came to a close, he mentioned to a human resources representative that he wanted to continue working at the new company until he was ninety; however, despite his expressed interest in remaining at the company well after the contract ended, he was let go.

After his contract ended, the plaintiff attempted to negotiate terms for further employment. The company ultimately decided it could not reach an agreement with their former employee, and he proceeded to file a lawsuit claiming employment discrimination. The allegations in the case included comments such as "old man" and "old guy." One of the main issues, therefore, was whether these comments were evidence of age bias.

The Fine Line Between Age Bias and "Stray Remarks"

The legal issue with regard the age comments was whether these statements demonstrated age bias, or whether they were simply "stray remarks." This distinction is important because stray remarks are not actionable. The court determined, first, that the references to him as an "old man" and "old guy" were actually made in response to the plaintiff calling a co-worker a "young guy."

More importantly, these comments were determined to be "sporadic" and said in such a manner that, at the time they were made, the plaintiff "did not find them offensive." Furthermore, the same co-workers accused of making these remarks had encouraged management to allow him to stay employed with the company. Looking at all of these facts together, the court determined that there was insufficient evidence of age bias. This decision was based simply on the comments. This case stands as an example of how every fact in a case is important and can have an enormous impact on the outcome of the case.

The Employer's Reasoning Was Non-Discriminatory

The plaintiff advanced a second argument in his case: he claimed that, in addition to facing various discriminatory remarks, he was not given a reason for his termination. The court did not agree with him, citing evidence that provided by the employer that instead of renewing the employment agreement, it had offered him new position. This proposal was made because the original offer was no longer economically feasible. As it turns out, the offer of a new position was not accepted by the plaintiff before the deadline—and there was evidence of performance issues during his employment contract.

Protection Against Age Discrimination

The primary statutory protection against age discrimination is found within the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). Under the ADEA, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee because of their age. The ADEA specifically protects employees who are age 40 or older. This Act also makes it unlawful to retaliate against a protected employee who complains of discrimination, files an EEOC charge or participates in an investigation or lawsuit alleging age discrimination.

Michel | King Michel & Kingoffers legal counsel for various types of workplace discrimination cases in Birmingham. If you believe you have been a victim of age discrimination, please bring your questions to the firm by filling out a case evaluation form or calling (205) 265-1880.

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