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Age Discrimination Claim: Did the Jury Get it Right?

In most litigation proceedings, it is the jury who decides the merits of the case and how much compensation the injured party should receive. It is also the jury job, during the trial and presentation of the evidence, to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, weigh the evidence, and then decide who wins. Once a verdict has been reached, it is extremely difficult for the losing side to persuade a court to overturn that verdict. In a recent age discrimination case, the Fourth Circuit was asked to do just that.

A Supervisory Meeting Goes Awry

In the Fourth Circuit case, Westmoreland v. TWC Administration LLC, a 61-year-old employee of Time Warner was terminated after three decades of employment. During that time, Westmoreland was a high performer and had only two minor infractions before July 2015. Her troubles began when she conducted a meeting with a substantially younger subordinate.

The meeting was conducted on July 21, 2015, and a form was required to be completed memorializing the meeting. However, Westmoreland neglected to have the form signed at the time of the meeting. Instead, Westmoreland met with the employee on July 27, 2015, to get the form signed and she asked the employee to back-date her signature to reflect the date of the initial meeting. The date was whited-out and altered and the form was emailed to a manager, Busgith.

Management Takes Steps to Penalize Westmoreland

A few days after the meetings and the altering of the form, Busgith called a meeting with Westmoreland’s subordinates, outside of her presence and instructed Westmoreland to take the day off. The fact that Westmoreland asked her subordinate to alter the form was discussed at the meeting and later reported to the regional human resources director.

Westmoreland was later questioned about the form being altered with white-out and she explained to the managers why that step was taken to correct the form. Busgith told Westmoreland “not to worry about it” and indicated that this discussion was merely “a slap on the wrist.”

Wrongful Termination Based on Age

Nothing else happened until August 14, when Westmoreland was called to a meeting without explanation. She was asked about altering the form and she admitted to doing so. She was then informed that she was being terminated pursuant to the company policy which stated that “[f]alse statements . . . may result in termination of employment.” It was confirmed that Westmoreland was not being terminated because of any issues with her job performance and that the only reason for her termination was changing the date on the form which raised “a lot of trust and integrity issues.” A 37-year-old subordinate of Westmoreland was chosen to replace her.

Basic Elements of an Age Discrimination Claim

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) makes it “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a). An employee cannot be successful on an age discrimination claim if she can only show that age was one of several motives for an employer’s decision. Instead, the employee must be able to prove that the employer would not have terminated her in the absence of age discrimination.

Jury Returns a Verdict for the Employee

The first time this case was tried, the jury was hung on the age discrimination claims and the trial court declared a mistrial. At the second trial, the trial court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss the case before the jury deliberated. The jury ultimately awarded Westmoreland $334,500 in damages.

When the employer appealed the jury verdict, the Fourth Circuit was required to determine whether there was sufficient evidence presented to the jury for them to reasonably decide that the employer’s stated reason for Westmoreland’s termination (backdating the form) was a pretext for unlawful age discrimination.

Sufficient Evidence of Pretext

In this case, the Fourth Circuit found that there was sufficient evidence of pretext to support the jury’s decision. Westmoreland was almost 61 years old when she was terminated after 30 years of consistently satisfactory job performance. She was also replaced with a much younger employee. All of the decision makers were aware of Westmoreland’s age and one of them made condescending and age-related comments immediately after she was terminated. Finally, Westmoreland’s termination was based on a violation of a company policy that allowed for lesser sanctions. Considering all of those facts, the evidence was sufficient for a reasonable jury to find for the employee.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady Michel & King . You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!