Dean Inman worked for 17 years at Klockner Pentaplast of America as a senior manager. He charged Klockner with age discrimination when it fired him. The prospects of getting to trial in federal court on discrimination have been low in recent years. Since last terms’ Supreme Court decision in Gross vs. FBL Financial Services, moreover, the burden on age discrimination plaintiffs has been higher still. The Gross decision heightened the standard of proof under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, requiring a plaintiff to show that if not for his age, he would not have been fired.
Despite this barrier, the Fourth Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of the employer. Unfortunately, the case is not published, which limits its precedential value to others. But in terms of a pro-employee decision, it’s big news.
In Dean Inman’s case, his boss claimed that Inman had lied about supporting the company’s decision to freeze salaries, and repeatedly refusing to implement a program that the supervisor wanted. Often those kinds of allegations are enough to get an employer judgment without having to go to trial. They sound plausible enough, and Inman did not deny that he found the program a waste of time and refused to work on it.
But there was also evidence about age bias, in the form of adjectives betraying stereotypes about older workers. Assumptions about older workers’ limitations may be even more prevalent in high tech jobs than others, where the young are seen to be the leaders of the high technology revolution. His termination was supported by the supervisor’s wish for a “more energetic person” as leader of the technical department, “for the appearance of a revitalized company.” Mr.Inman was told that he did not fit the “model” or “profile” the company wished. In addition, the decisionmaker was paying close attention to a consultant who advised the company to appoint four people to a task force, and specified that they should be “young,” “energetic,” “future people.”
It is encouraging that the Fourth Circuit recognized these statements as indicators of age bias. Even though the employee has the burden of proof to show that discrimination motivated the decision, this evidence entitled him to have a trial and let the jury decide who was telling the truth