Age Discrimination in Employment Decisions

by on January 7, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Was the boss bias relevant

Eric Margolis rocked back in his chair, took a deep breath and exhaled. “I’m fired? You’re kidding, right?”

HR Director Wayne Roberts shook his head. “Yes, Eric.”

“I run the most successful Crown Rental branch on the east coast,” said Eric. “I exceed my targets every quarter! This is crazy. You say I’m fired for ‘gross misconduct?’ That smells like a cover-up for age discrimination – and I know who’s behind this.”

Eric’s boss, Tommy Davis, had made many negative comments about Eric’s age – even in front of witnesses. Tommy had made it pretty clear he wanted “the old man” out.

Audit uncovers tax dodge

“Tommy’s comments aren’t relevant,” said Wayne. “The auditors found serious irregularities. And that comes from headquarters. Tommy’s not the decision maker. They decided based on the audit. You know we can’t take any chances nowadays.”

Eric chuckled. “That audit wouldn’t have happened unless Tommy requested it – which no supervisor has ever done before. So what’s ‘gross misconduct?’ The equipment painting issue?”

Months earlier Tommy had given Eric an order: Spend $25,000 painting equipment before the end of the year. Tommy told Eric he didn’t care when the equipment got painted as long as Eric paid for the work. This spend-down tactic was for tax purposes.

“Tommy told me he didn’t care when I painted the equipment,” Eric explained to the HR Director. “The equipment’s out on lease now making money for us. I prepaid the contractor so we could show the business expense this year. That’s all.”

“Sorry,” said Wayne. “Headquarters says that’s fiscally irresponsible. My hands are tied. I’ve got to let you go.”

After Eric was terminated he filed an age discrimination lawsuit. Did he win?

The decision

Yes. Eric won on appeal, after a district court first ruled against his ADEA lawsuit.

At issue: Was corporate headquarters’ case tainted by the boss’s age discrimination? Other courts have ruled in favor of the employer in such cases. After all, the internal audit had revealed a questionable business practice that made Eric’s dismissal legitimate.

For the auditors, when Eric prepaid to have the equipment painted, even though it was leased to another company, he exposed the company to questions from outside auditors and possibly even tax fraud charges.

True, Tommy didn’t step up and tell the auditors it hadn’t mattered to him when the equipment was painted. But the auditors did uncover evidence of Eric’s financial mismanagement on their own. That’s why the first court ruled in favor of the employer.

Bottom line: Tommy didn’t want an “old man” running the branch, but he hadn’t participated in Eric’s firing.

But the appeals court agreed with Eric’s argument: Even though Tommy wasn’t a decision maker, “his animus impermissibly tainted the decision-making process when he withheld important information about the painting of the equipment.”

Something else tainted the process: Tommy’s demand for an internal audit. Had that been a common practice for supervisors, the court might not have raised an eyebrow. But the court agreed the audit only occurred because of Tommy’s “animus.”

This case is a reminder: There’s no room for age discrimination, bias, or bigotry in any organization – whether or not the participants are decision makers.

Cite: Cariglia v. Hertz Equipment Rental Corp., U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit, No. 02-2199, 4/5/04. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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