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Can age discrimination be proven by an employer’s shifting rationales?

The unfortunate reality is that we are more than likely going to see more instances of older Americans losing their jobs due to what employers classify as downsizing, but what really appears to be a textbook case of age discrimination. That’s because the nation’s sizeable baby boomer population is continuing to get older while still choosing to play an active role in the workforce.

While people who encounter this situation may feel as if they have relatively few legal options since their former employer didn’t provide them with direct evidence of age discrimination (i.e., ageist remarks), this may not necessarily be the case.

To illustrate, consider a recent case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit examining the sufficiency of shifting rationales for termination as evidence of possible age discrimination. 

According to the facts, a facilities manager at a Tennessee printing company was terminated back in 2011. The manager, who was in his early 60s at the time, was informed that the termination was due to corporate downsizing. Shortly thereafter, however, the company proceeded to fill the vacancy with someone 15 years younger.

Understandably upset, the manager filed a federal lawsuit accusing the company of age discrimination. Here, the district court ultimately dismissed his claim, finding that the company’s explanation of a “reduction in force” was sufficient and that he was lacking sufficient evidence to prove that age discrimination had occurred.

The manager appealed the matter to the Sixth Circuit, which ultimately overturned the decision of the district court in an opinion issued just last month.   

In reaching its decision, the court held that the printing company’s shifting rationales for the manager’s termination — from a reduction in force to a suggestion of a lack of teamwork — could possibly serve as evidence of age discrimination.

“Although it is possible that [the company official] had [the manager’s] allegedly poor teamwork in mind when he initially selected him for termination, and that both reasons played a role in [his] discharge, a reasonable jury could conclude that [the company official] shifted the reasons for his decision over time,” reads the opinion. “Such shifting justifications raise an inference that the proffered reasons are false and are pretext for discrimination.”

Cases like these serve to demonstrate just how important it is for those who suspect that they have been victimized by age discrimination — or workplace discrimination of any kind — to consider speaking with an experienced legal professional who can thoroughly examine their situation and offer an educated opinion about the pursuit of justice.

Source: AARP, “Changing reasons for firing may be evidence of age discrimination,” Lisa McElroy, May 22, 2014

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