In this down economy, many employers are undergoing layoffs of workers. Certainly, it can be harder to prove that your termination was discriminatory or retaliatory when many others are suffering the same fate as you are. But ask yourself this: was the layoff legitimately based upon financial reasons, and if so, why were you chosen?
As the California Supreme Court has explained, “Invocation of a right to downsize does not resolve whether the employer had a discriminatory motive for cutting back its work force, or engaged in intentional discrimination when deciding which individual workers to retain and release.” Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc., 24 Cal.4th 317, 358, 100 Cal.Rptr.2d 352 (2000). See also, e.g., Miller v. Fairchild Industries, Inc., 885 F.2d 498, 506 (9th Cir. 1989) (jury could find retaliation in layoff which employer claimed was based on decline in workload, where employee provided contrary testimony and where other employees were not similarly laid off); Cones v. Shalala, 199 F.3d 512, 519-520 (D.C.Cir. 2000) (holding that a jury could have concluded that the agency’s explanation for not promoting the African-American plaintiff, downsizing, was inconsistent with its decision to promote three white co-workers, and hence a pretext for discrimination); Cichewicz v. UNOVA Indus. Automotive Systems, Inc., 92 Fed.Appx. 215, at **5 (6th Cir. 2004) (downsizing explanation insufficient to warrant summary judgment where there was evidence of pretext). If you were chosen for layoff over someone not of your protected classification who was less qualified, then you may still have a viable claim regarding your termination.
In a case in which I argued this last month against a summary judgment and summary adjudication motion, the employer – a relatively small company – laid off five workers, including my client, who was 50 at the time. My client was the only worker of his classification laid off, and a number were retained – including some who were similar in age to my client, and some who were ten or more years younger. I was able to distinguish my client from several workers of similar ages because they worked in different regions (geographically) than he did. Yet, the company was at first unable to present a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for retaining the younger workers instead of my client. When the company did present reasons other than age, they were only vague and non-specific ones (e.g., management felt that my client would be “less missed”), which (to the extent they meant anything at all) my client could readily refute.
Moreover, there were numerous instances in which a key decision-maker in the layoff had told my client that he felt the company needed to “get younger,” and that older workers cost the company more in benefits and wages, among other statements. This evidence suggests that the company’s weak reasons stated for choosing my client for layoff were just a pretext (or phony reason to cover up) for age discrimination. “With direct evidence of pretext, a triable issue as to the actual motivation of the employer is created even if the evidence is not substantial. The plaintiff is required to produce very little direct evidence of the employer’s discriminatory intent to move past summary judgment.” Morgan v. Regents of University of Cal. (2000) 88 Cal.App.4th 52, 68, 105 Cal.Rptr.2d 652 (citing Chuang v. University of California Davis, Bd. of Trustees (9th Cir. 2000) 225 F.3d 1115, 1127.
Based on the evidence I presented, Bryan Schwartz Law (http://www.bryanschwartzlaw.com/) and my co-counsel learned that the Court intends to deny the company’s effort to defeat the age discrimination claim arising from the layoff, allowing my client to proceed to trial to overturn his termination.
If you are notified of a layoff, think twice before assuming that you are out of options.
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About the Author: Bryan Schwartz is an Oakland, CA-based attorney specializing in civil rights, employment law. Call today – (510) 444-9300 – or send an email: Bryan@BryanSchwartzLaw.com
This article originally appeared in Bryan Schwartz Law on March 31, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.