Articles Posted in Age Discrimination

Age discrimination continues to garner public attention as older workers challenge traditional notions of what is deemed a “normal” retirement age. Like other forms of employment discrimination claims, it is rare to find direct or “smoking gun” evidence of age discrimination. Rather, age bias claims are typically proven through circumstantial evidence. Specifically, under the McDonnell Douglas framework, employees who suffer age discrimination must first establish what is known as a prima facie case by showing that they: (1) are at least 40 years old, (2) possess the qualifications to do the job, (3) experienced some type of of adverse employment action (e.g., termination, demotion, failure to promote), and (4) were replaced by someone who is “substantially younger.”

In Knight v. Avon Products, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court defined “substantially younger” as an age disparity of at least five years. In addition, the Supreme Court in O’Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers made clear that satisfying the fourth element does not require the replacement to be under 40 years old. As such, a 65 year old employee would still meet his or her burden under the fourth prong if the replacement is 60 years old or younger.

Whether it’s a disability discrimination or sexual harassment claim, employment discrimination cases in general tend to be very fact-intensive, making the discovery process and depositions in particular all the more critical. As the moving party, it is the employee’s ultimate burden to prove discriminatory bias which, as discussed here, can be inferred in several ways. Generally, the greater the opportunity to gather information through the discovery process, the better an employee’s chance of prevailing at trial.

The opportunity to gather sufficient evidence, however, can be severely hindered where an employer engages in obstructionist tactics. Namely, in depositions, such tactics take the form of speaking objections, witness coaching, and improperly instructing a deponent not to answer a particular question. In addition, even after a deposition, a deponent may attempt to distance his or herself from unfavorable testimony by making substantive changes to an errata sheet.

Overview: In Lammlin v. Seder Foods, the MCAD found in favor of the Complainant and awarded back pay and emotional distress damages. This is the MCAD’s first decision in 2016. This case included direct evidence of discriminatory bias, where the Respondent testified at public hearing that he sought a “salesperson who not only spoke Spanish, but who was culturally Latino.” As expected, the hearing officer rejected Respondent’s perceived “cultural affinity” defense and applied the mixed-motive analysis. In arriving at emotional distress damages, the hearing officer noted “the meager evidence proffered regarding his emotional distress, including the absence of testimony regarding its nature, severity and duration” and ultimately characterized its award as de minimis.

Decision Date: January 20, 2016

Proving employment discrimination without direct evidence – regardless of whether its based on age, handicap, or some other protected category – ultimately boils down to whether the employee can show that the employer’s stated reason for the adverse employment action (e.g., termination, demotion, failure to promote) is a pretext for unlawful discrimination. As discussed in Proving Employment Discrimination Through Circumstantial Evidence, employment discrimination cases are typically proven through circumstantial (as opposed to direct) evidence under a three-part, burden-shifting framework.

It is in the final stage of this framework that an employee must carry the burden of showing pretext. As the non-exhaustive, baker’s dozen list below illustrates, there are numerous ways in which pretext for unlawful employment discrimination can be inferred:

Aside from cases involving direct or “smoking gun” evidence, which is rare, proving an employment discrimination claim is often nuanced and accomplished through the use of circumstantial evidence. As the Supreme Court in Rogers v. Missouri Pacific has long recognized, such evidence can even be the most powerful of the two:

Circumstantial evidence is not only sufficient, but may also be more certain, satisfying and persuasive than direct evidence.

Employment discrimination claims often hinge on the admissibility of evidence. A plaintiff bringing an employment discrimination claim may, for example, offer into evidence testimony from other employees who also believe they were victims of discrimination. Such evidence is referred to as “me too” or propensity evidence and has been a subject of debate among litigants. Be it discrimination based on age, gender, or another protected class, propensity evidence can be powerful if admissible.

As background, Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)(2), which is virtually identical to the Massachusetts corollary, provides that evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act “may be admissible for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.” Because motive, intent, and state of mind are directly at issue in employment discrimination claims, “me too” or propensity evidence may be properly admitted under these rules under certain circumstances. Other relevant portions of the Rules of Evidence with respect to “me too” or propensity evidence include FRE 401 (Test for Relevant Evidence) and FRE 403 (Excluding Relevant Evidence for Prejudice, Confusion, Waste of Time, or Other Reasons).

Is proving employment discrimination more difficult under the federal rules of evidence? An article by the New York Times entitled Chief Justice’s Report Praises Limits on Litigants’ Access to Information suggests so. Let’s take a closer look. In doing so, it’s important to note that employees who bring whistleblower claims, unpaid wages actions (including overtime and commission claims), and who are retaliated against for using medical leave likely face the hurdles.

As discussed in the 2015 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary by Justice Roberts, the amended Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 26(b)(1) now requires discovery requests to be “proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.” In contrast, Massachusetts Rule of Civil Procedure (MRCP) 26(b)(1) currently imposes no such requirement.