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Arthur vs. Pet Dairy

Appeals Court Makes It Difficult for Age Discrimination Cases to Succeed

What damages can I recover if I file a lawsuit against my employer?

Those claiming age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) face a more difficult time making their case than those involved with the federal Title VII law, which covers issues such as race and color discrimination, according to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth District, which hears appeals from federal courts in Maryland and Virginia. In a Virginia case, Arthur v. Pet Dairy, the appeals court made it clear employees with performance issues claiming age discrimination will have a tough time being successful.

Ralph Arthur sued his former employer, Pet Dairy, claiming he was discriminated against based because of his age (63) when his employment was terminated. The lower court dismissed the case before there was a trial, claiming there were no material facts in dispute and the defendant was entitle to a judgment in its favor. Arthur appealed but to no avail.

Arthur was employed as a salesman and delivery man for Pet Dairy in Lynchburg. The court used about five of its 27 pages describing what a bad employee Arthur was, the repeated verbal warnings he received, complaints from customers (including from his biggest accounts, one which threatened to stop buying from the defendant if Arthur continued to be assigned to them) and his eventual termination.

The court also found Arthur’s supervisor (Mike Reynolds), and the one who told the company’s human resource director he needed to be fired, made comments showing a bias against Arthur because of his age.

  • That evidence included an affidavit from a co-worker who stated Reynolds made comments showing he thought the plaintiff was too old to work.
  • About three weeks before he lost his job, Arthur quoted Reynolds as stating he, “need[ed] to go ahead and hang it up because [he was] just too old to do [his] job.”

The court stated, “plaintiff must prove that age was the but-for cause of his termination. In this case, (Arthur’s) evidence fails to raise a genuine dispute as to whether he can satisfy this burden; he offers nothing to cast doubt upon (Pet Dairy’s) stated reasons for terminating him…”

In other discrimination claims it’s enough for a plaintiff be successful if he or she can show the illegal discrimination was one of the reasons for the negative employment decision. The Fourth Circuit is stating that discrimination needs to be shown as the reason for the discrimination when age discrimination under the ADEA is claimed.

That court states their position comes from the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, which states that because the language of the ADEA and Title VII differ, what the plaintiff needs to show, and what the defendant needs to show to defend itself, differ as well. The court ruled ADEA plaintiffs need to show that “but for” the discrimination, there would have been no negative decision against them.

Arguments can be made that’s not what the court intended, but those arguments didn’t sway the appeals court. There is language in Gross stating there’s no heightened evidentiary requirement for ADEA plaintiffs and a 2014 case Burrage v. U.S. muddied the statutory interpretation waters even more claiming “because of” means “but for” (whatever that means, since there might be more than one “but for” reason for someone to be fired).

The court in this case also goes in circles stating plaintiffs need not rebut every allegation of wrongdoing, but must show there was no non-discriminatory basis for an emplyer’s decision. The court even admits Reynold’s statements showed a discriminatory bias because of Arthur’s age, but there was no credible evidence of illegal discrimination as far as the court was concerned and there was no need for a trial.

Those seeking redress for age discrimination under the ADEA need to consider they,

  • Will face difficulty because of how the Gross decision is being interpreted requiring a showing that discrimination was the reason for the negative employment action, and
  • Even when a judge credits discriminatory statements by a supervisor, there still may not be a favorable decision.

Every case is unique. Though Arthur was not successful with his case, that doesn’t mean you won’t be successful if you’ve been discriminated against because of your age. Contact our office so we can talk about your situation and your legal options.

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