Employer Wins Age Discrimination Suit Even Though it Doesn’t Follow its Own Employee Handbook

by Labor & Employment Group

(402) 341-3070

Although a bit unusual, a recent decision arising out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit shed some interesting light in a workforce reduction age discrimination case.

Harriett Schoonmaker, age 58, sued Spartan Graphics Leasing following Spartan Graphics’ decision to terminate her employment and  that of another 65-year-old individual from the third shift during a reduction in force because it felt that employees on the first and second shifts were more productive. The Company chose to retain a 29-year old employee because the decision maker felt the younger employee was more productive and could get along better with the remaining employees on the third shift. The decision maker had no records to support his conclusion that the younger employee was more productive. He also admitted that he was unaware of the Company’s written policy on staff reductions, as contained in the Employee Handbook. That policy stated the Company would attempt to identify employees who were the most qualified to perform the work available based on qualifications, productivity, attendance, general performance records, and other factors the Company considered relevant. When those factors were relatively equal, decisions were to be made based on length of service.

Schoonmaker brought her age discrimination lawsuit in federal court. After Spartan Graphics obtained a favorable decision on summary judgment, Schoonmaker appealed to the Sixth Circuit. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit noted that in order to establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment on a theory of age discrimination, the complaining employee must demonstrate:  (1) that they were a member of a protected class; (2) they were discharged; (3) they were qualified for the position they held; and (4) that they were replaced by someone outside of the protected class. At first glance, it would appear that Schoonmaker had satisfied all four elements. However, the court went on to find that when a termination arises as part of a workforce reduction, the fourth element has to be modified to require the plaintiff to provide additional direct, circumstantial or statistical evidence tending to indicate that the employer singled out the plaintiff for discharge for impermissible reasons. Specifically, the court held that a person is not improperly replaced when another employee is assigned to perform the plaintiff’s duties in addition to their own, or when the work is redistributed among other existing employees already performing related work. That is what happened in this case. Schoonmaker’s duties were assigned to the younger, 29-year old employee to perform, in addition to the duties the younger employee already performed. Accordingly, in order to have made out a prima facie case, Schoonmaker would have to have shown that she possessed superior qualifications to the younger employee who was retained. In this case, Schoonmaker failed to offer any such evidence other than her subjective belief that she was more qualified.

Schoonmaker also argued that Spartan Graphics’ failure to follow the layoff criteria of its own handbook should have been sufficient evidence to allow her to proceed to trial. However, the appellate court agreed with the district court’s observation that the decision maker’s ignorance of the handbook provision, as opposed to an affirmative decision to ignore that provision, did not give rise to an inference that the decision to select Schoonmaker for termination was based upon her age. Further, there was undisputed testimony the decision maker considered the employee’s qualifications and her ability to work together constructively as a team. The latter factor was considered by that supervisor to be more important than other factors. Since Schoonmaker had presented no countervailing evidence, the court was unwilling to conclude the decision maker’s ignorance of the handbook provision was equivalent to an affirmative decision to ignore that handbook. Rather, the court noted that the law does not require an employer to make perfect decisions, but simply prevents employers from taking adverse employment actions for impermissible, discriminatory reasons. In this particular case, there was no question that work was slow and that the stated reason for selecting Schoonmaker, a reduction-in-force, was a legitimate reason to discharge someone. Schoonmaker’s evidence was insufficient to suggest that the impermissible reason of Schoonmaker’s age was the reason her employment ended

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