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Court finds employee entitled to trial on retaliation claims


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jwilson

By Joshua Wilson

A federal court in Pennsylvania denied an employer’s attempt to dismiss employment discrimination and retaliation claims prior to trial and ordered that the terminated employee was entitled to a jury trial. The employee was a public works director and borough engineer who had received good job performance ratings throughout his 30-year career. However, he was terminated shortly after a new borough manger was brought in to replace a former manager. Employees, including the terminated employee, claimed it was common for the new manager to make comments referring to the terminated employee or his work as “outdated” and “old fashioned.” Other employees claimed it was common knowledge that the new manager preferred younger employees. Some employees had alleged that there was a purported plan to replace the older staff with younger employees.

The employee filed his lawsuit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) for discrimination and retaliation. The employee alleged he was terminated only hours after he submitted a complaint to his boss that the manager was discriminating against him based on his age. The employer moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the employee failed to show that he was replaced by a person sufficiently younger to support an age discrimination claim. The employer offered evidence that the manager took over the employee’s job duties immediately after termination then subsequently hired a new employee that was substantially close in age to the terminated employee (at least five years younger). However, this evidence was not sufficient for the court to dismiss the claims. 

The employer also argued that the termination was justified due to the fractured relationship between the employee and the manager. The court noted that this alleged justification was based almost entirely on the manager’s own assertions of the fractured relationship between the two. One factor in the employee’s favor was that virtually all of his performance reviews over his thirty (30) year career with the employer were favorable and he had never been disciplined prior to his termination. 

The court found that there was sufficient evidence to go to trial due to the fact that there was evidence the manager had age-based discriminatory animus towards the employee. Furthermore, the court found that although the employer claimed it was using its business judgment in the making the decision, that fact did not shield it from liability. The employee presented sufficient evidence that his age may have played a role in the termination decision, especially when coupled with the animus shown by the manager. The court determined there was sufficient evidence to allow a jury to determine whether age played a role in the decision to terminate the employee. 

Regarding the retaliation claim, the court found that the temporal proximity between the employee’s age-related complaint about the manager and the termination, which was only hours after he submitted his complaint, was evidence that the employee may have been terminated in retaliation for the complaint. The employer attempted to argue that the decision to terminate the employee had been made prior to his complaints, but the court did not find sufficient evidence to indicate that was true. Furthermore, the employee had presented evidence that the manager told him his job was not in jeopardy three days prior to the complaints of discrimination. Ultimately, the employee presented substantial evidence that the manager’s age bias towards him and the fact that he was terminated within a short time frame of his complaints regarding the bias was sufficient to present the claims to a jury.



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