Supreme Court Says Pretext Alone Is Sufficient Basis For Proving Discrimination

Author:Mr Douglas Phillips
Profession:Holland & Knight LLP
 
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In a unanimous decision issued in June 2000,

the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the standard for proving discrimination

claims filed under federal law.† The Court held that a jury may find in

favor of a plaintiff claiming age discrimination if the plaintiff merely shows

that the employer's stated reason for his termination was false.† In

reversing a decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court

reiterated a rule it established seven years ago, but that had not always been

strictly followed in the lower federal courts: proof that an employer's

reasons for a termination are a pretext may, by itself, be sufficient to

permit a jury to find discriminatory intent, even if there is no other

evidence of discrimination.† The decision highlights the importance of

documenting employee performance problems as a means of avoiding

discrimination claims.

The plaintiff in the case, Roger Reeves, was

57 years old at the time he was fired and had worked for Sanderson Plumbing

Products, a toilet seat manufacturer, for 40 years.† The company claimed

it discharged Reeves mainly because he had incorrectly recorded absences and

tardiness in the department he supervised and had failed to discipline

employees who were absent or late.† Sanderson also pointed out that it

had terminated a younger employee at the same time it fired Reeves and that

the company employed a number of managers who were over the age of 50.

In response, Reeves offered evidence that his

record-keeping had been accurate and that he was not responsible for

disciplining employees for violations of the attendance policy.† Reeves

also testified that one of the managers who recommended his firing had told

him that he was ìtoo damn old to do the jobî and that he was so old that

he ìmust have come over on the Mayflower.î† A co-worker testified

that the manager had treated Reeves more harshly than younger employees.

A jury found that Sanderson fired Reeves

because of his age and awarded him nearly $100,000 in damages, but the Fifth

Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the jury's verdict.† The Court of

Appeals held that there was insufficient evidence at trial to prove

discrimination.† Specifically, the Fifth Circuit found that a reasonable

jury might have concluded that Sanderson's reasons for firing Reeves were

pretextual, but that there was not enough evidence to show that those reasons

were a pretext for age discrimination.†

The Supreme Court reinstated the verdict in

favor of Reeves...

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