With age comes experience, and with that, wisdom. But as an employee, a person who is a little older is not excluded from the same regulations and restrictions as everyone else. Four men recently learned this after losing a case against their former employer.
These men were working at a steel company in Pennsylvania for approximately 25 to 35 years. The company, while investigating a complaint of sexual harassment against one of the men, learned that six male employees were often emailing one another messages of a sexually explicit nature. As this was in direct violation of the company’s Electronics Communication Policy, all six of the employees were suspended from work until the matter could be researched further. The company looked at each offense, considering the total number of emails sent, whether or not the recipient worked at the company, and if said recipient(s) was a customer or vendor. Approximately one week subsequent to their suspension, four of the six men were fired.
The employees filed a lawsuit in a district court. As their ages ranged from late fifties to early sixties, their claim was that the company had discriminated against them and correspondingly violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the company, stating that the employees had not provided proper evidence to show that they would not have been terminated had it not been for their ages. This is what some in the legal profession would call a “but-for.” Simply put, if the employees’ ages were not a factor, they would have retained their jobs.
At an appeals court, the men attempted to prove past discrimination at the workplace, citing several incidents having previously occurred. The CEO allegedly asked one of the employees about retiring and said to him, “It looks like you are ready to retire. You have gray hair and are fat.” He also allegedly said at a meeting that a “younger workforce” was needed. Another employee was reassigned to a different position, as the company wanted “new blood” in his department. The four employees additionally claim that, during meetings, the older workers sat together and were usually interrupted while the younger employees’ thoughts and ideas were favored.
The U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, deemed the comments made by the CEO as “stray remarks.” This is a legal principle originating from a 1989 sex discrimination case, in which it was contrasted with “direct evidence.” Comments made from employers to a worker of a “protected class” – age, race, gender – can be considered a stray remark, with no intention of discrimination.
The employees also suggested that the other two men suspended were treated favorably. However, one worker viewed offense websites but did not send any such emails, while the other only sent one email with explicit material. The others regularly transmitted offensive content.
The appeals court likewise was not persuaded by any additional argument from the employees. The court affirmed the original ruling in favor of the company.