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Could This Be News? Employee Fired Because She Was Too Old And Too Expensive Has Right To Age Discrimination Trial

Direct Evidence Of Age Discrimination Gets Plaintiff Jury Trial: Court Wrongfully Applied Mixed Motive Standard To Bounce The Case

It’s hard to believe that this age discrimination victim got thrown out of court and had to go to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals for a reversal but here’s what happened in the recently decided case of Mora v. Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Facts Of The Case

Sixty-two year old Josephine Mora worked for Jackson Memorial Hospital (“Hospital”) as a fundraiser. She initially worked for someone named Chea who recommended to the Hospital’s chief executive, Rodriguez, that she be fired. The reasons for the recommendation are not set out in the opinion.

Rodriguez first agreed, but then decided to give Mora a different position in his own office “where he could observe her more closely.” Mora worked with Rodriguez for a month. Rodriguez claimed during that time Mora was responsible for several errors and displayed a lack of professionalism.

At the end of the month, Rodriguez fired Mora. When he did so, according to Mora, Rodriguez called her into his office and said:

I need someone younger I can pay less … I need Elena [Quevedo, a 25 year old employee]

In addition, one employee heard Rodriguez tell Mora:

You are very old and inept. What you should be doing is taking care of old people. They really need you. I need somebody younger that I can pay less and I can control.

Another employee heard Rodriguez say “she’s too old to be working here anyway” in reference to Mora.

In the course of Mora’s lawsuit filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, (“ADEA”) Rodriguez denied making these discriminatory remarks. In addition, the Hospital argued that even if it did discriminate against Mora, she would have been fired anyway because of poor performance.

The district court agreed with the defendant, concluded that the Hospital had met its burden under the “same decision” affirmative defense, and granted judgment in favor of the Hospital. Mora appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit Reverses

Mixed Motive Analysis Wrongfully Applied

Part of the reason why the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision was because it found that the district court wrongfully applied a Title VII mixed motive analysis to an ADEA case.

The discussion involves a lot of complicated and tortured law, but here’s the simplest I can make it.

In the landmark Supreme Court case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins decided in 1989, the evidence showed that the partners at Price Waterhouse made sexist remarks and engaged in gender stereotyping when they denied Ann Hopkins partnership in the firm. In other words, there was direct evidence of discrimination.

In its holding the Supreme Court set out a new standard which could be applied to cases with direct evidence of discrimination. In sum, when a plaintiff shows that race or sex discrimination was a motivating or substantial factor in an employment decision, the burden of persuasion shifts to the employer to prove that it would have made the same decision anyway (in the absence of the discriminatory motive.)

Since the Price Waterhouse decision, this kind of discrimination case is often referred to as a “mixed motive case” with a “same decision defense.”

In Moro’s case, the district court applied the Price Waterhouse mixed motive analysis and ruled that the Hospital proved its “same decision” defense. It concluded that Mora ‘s termination was inevitable given the number and severity of her workplace problems and that no reasonable jury could find otherwise. And so she lost as a matter of law.

The problem with the district court’s ruling — according to the 11th Circuit — is that the Supreme Court’s decision in Gross v. FBIS Financial Services (2009) held that the Price Waterhouse mixed motive burden shifting analysis only applied to discrimination claims brought under Title VII and did not apply to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. ( I wrote about the awful Gross case here and here)

Consequently, since the mixed motive burden shifting analysis was wrongly applied, the defense was not entitled to its same decision defense, and the district court’s reliance on that defense in finding against the plaintiff was reversible error.

The Jury Should Decide Whether Mora Was Fired Because Of Her Age

After the 11th Circuit explained why the district court’s analysis was wrong, it went on to explain what the correct analysis is – and unlike the above discussion, it’s all very straightforward from there.

A plaintiff in an ADEA case may prove illegal age discrimination with either direct or circumstantial evidence. Moro testified that she was fired because of her age, and two co-employees substantiated her. The Hospital denied that the comments were made which meant that material facts were in dispute and the case properly belonged in front of a jury.

As the Court put it:

The resolution of this case depends on whose account of the pertinent conversations a jury would credit. …..

A reasonable juror could find that Rodriguez’s statements should be taken at face value and that he fired Plaintiff because of her age. For us to conclude otherwise would be to deny Plaintiff the benefit of resolving all reasonable inferences in her favor as the nonmoving party.

Given the disputed question of material fact, Defendant was unentitled to a summary judgment.

Take Away

It’s awfully common for people to be let go because they are considered by some to be too old and too expensive. I can’t count the number of times I have represented people who were fired for just those reasons.

In this case, Josephine Mora was told, “you’re too old. I need to find someone younger and cheaper.” If it’s not a case of age discrimination, I don’t know what is.

It’s both astounding and disheartening that forty three years after the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, a court faced with such strong evidence of age discrimination could throw the plaintiff out, grant judgment in favor of the employer, and deprive the employee of her right to a jury trial

It’s a good thing the Eleventh Circuit fixed the mistake and published this opinion, because if this woman can’t get her age discrimination case in front of a jury, I have a hard time figuring out who can.

image: lawblog.legalmatch.com

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights attorneys in the United States, Ellen Simon has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. A sought-after legal analyst and expert, she discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post www.employeerightspost.com/ has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. Learn more about Ellen Simon at www.ellensimon.net/.

Supreme Court Hears “Mixed-Motive” Age Discrimination Case

Good luck to anyone who is trying to figure out what is going on with the Gross v. FBL Financial Services case argued in the Supreme Court yesterday. I have been doing this work for three decades and I think it’s almost impossible.

The questions presented are:

  1. In a “mixed-motive” age discrimination case — where both legitimate and illegitimate reasons motivated the employment decision, should the employer be permitted to avoid liability if proves that it would have taken the same action anyway?
  2. What kind of evidence needs to be presented — direct or circumstantial — to prove a “mixed-motive” case?
  3. Does the discriminatory reason need to be a “substantial reason” or “a motivating reason” for the employee to prevail?
  4. Which party bears the burden of proof?

The answers turns on whether the Supreme Court will apply the older mixed motive analysis under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins or the newer standard under the Civil Rights Act of 1991. (“CRA”); or (less likely) whether the Court will overrule Price Waterhouse as requested by the employer-respondent.

In the 1989 Price Waterhouse decision, the plaintiff Ann Hopkins presented direct evidence (as opposed to circumstantial evidence) that she was discriminated against when she was denied a promotion to partnership. The defendant basically said that even though it  may have discriminated,  it would have reached the same result anyway in denying Ms. Hopkins her promotion.

In it’s fractured decision,  the Supreme Court came up with a new way of proving discrimination in what it called a “mixed-motive” case.  Simply said, this new method of proof set forth a complicated and confusing burden shifting framework.

After the Price Waterhouse decision, courts began allowing employers who used illegal factors in employment decisions to avoid liability by merely showing that they would have made the same decision anyway even without considering the unlawful factor.

In other words, the unintended consequence of the decision was that employers were getting off the hook in the face of direct evidence of discrimination.

As a result, Congress overturned that portion of Price Waterhouse when it enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1991.  In so doing, it specifically lowered the standards for employees in “mixed-motive” cases.  Theoretically, the CRA  makes it easier for employees to win these cases.  Under the Act:

  • the employer is not absolved of liability in “mixed-motive cases” even if it proves it would have made the same decision anyway, but damages to the employee are restricted.
  • in  order to take advantage of the mixed-motive theory and shift the burden to the defendant, the plaintiff must “demonstrate” that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice

The legislation was silent as to what type of evidence (direct, circumstantial, clear and convincing, etc.) the plaintiff needed to successfully prove the illegal motivation.

The issue of what kind of evidence was required was decided by the Supreme Court inDesert Palace, Inc. v.Costa in 2003. According to that decision, Congress intended the term “demonstrate” to mean that an employee could prove his or her case bydirect or circumstantial evidence. As the Court stated:

Title VII’s silence with respect to the type of evidence required in mixed-motive cases . . . suggests that we should not depart from the “[c]onventional rul[e] of civil litigation [that] generally appl[ies] in Title VII cases.” … That rule requires a plaintiff to prove his case “by a preponderance of the evidence,” . . . by using “direct or circumstantial evidence,” Postal Service Bd. of Governors v. Aikens,460 U.S. 711, 714, n. 3 (1983).

You would think that would settle it but there’s always a wrinkle, and the wrinkle for Mr. Gross is that  the CRA applies to Title VII and does not specifically mention the Age Discrimination in Employment Act . As a result, according to FBL Financial, neither the CRA nor the Desert Palace decision apply to Gross’ case.

Paul Secunda from the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog points out that conservative justices like Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito may jump on this argument.

One argument, likely to be favored by conservative justices like Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito, is a textualist approach arguing that Congress knew what it was doing, could have expressly included the ADEA in the CRA of 1991, but chose not to for whatever reason. If we are unhappy with the current state of affairs, the argument continues, the proper approach is to allow Congress to amend the CRA of 1991 to include ADEA claims.

The flip side is that disparate treatment claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (which is what this is) are always interpreted identically to claims brought under Title VII (which prohibits discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin) on issues like the ones before the Court.

Gross’ argument is that there would be no reason not to interpret the ADEA  consistently with Title VII and no reason not to do so in this case.  That is in fact what many courts have done. (ie the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Blair v. Henry Filters)

If anyone wants more, better, or different analysis of  the Gross case,  there are lots good pieces on it (SCOTUSBLOG, Ross Runkel’s Law Memo are two)

Whatever the outcome, as a practical matter I don’t think it will change the way employees and their lawyers go about proving age discrimination cases:

  • Plaintiffs are going to present all the evidence they have whether it’s direct or circumstantial, or both.
  • Most of us who represent employees have never seen the benefit of getting a “mixed motive” instruction even when we have direct evidence of discrimination because it’s too confusing to the jury.
  • It’s just a much easier and better standard for employees in discrimination cases to have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence, whether direct or circumstantial, that age, race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability was a motivating factor in the adverse employment decision.

For sure, the decision will be interesting to Supreme Court observers to see how the justices line up on this one.  Other than that, it’s not very interesting at all, but since it’s not often that an age discrimination cases hit the Supreme Court, it’s got to be talked about even though I am the first to admit –it’s mostly academic.

Image: www.visitingdc.com

Crossposted from Ellen Simon’s blog Employee Rights Post.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. Ms. Simon is the owner of the Simon Law Firm, L.P.A., and Of Counsel to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, a Cleveland, Ohio based law firm. She is also the author of the legal blog, the Employee Rights Post. Her website is www.ellensimon.net.


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