Labor & Employment Law Daily Retention of less-qualified younger employee in RIF supports ADEA claim
Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Retention of less-qualified younger employee in RIF supports ADEA claim

By Jeffrey H. Brochin, J.D.

The employee made the minimal showing required at the summary judgment stage that she was qualified for the position and suffered an adverse employment action because of her age.

Denying an employer’s motion for summary judgment against an employee’s age discrimination claims, a federal district court in Texas determined that the employee made out a prima facie case of discrimination based on the employer’s retention of a younger, less-qualified employee instead of the 64-year-old plaintiff, who was let go in a reduction in force due to a downturn in business (Harrison v. Chipolbrok America, Inc., April 19, 2019, Hanen, A.).

Significant business decline. The employee began working for the employer in 2007 when she was 55 years old. A customer service manager, she assisted both the “westbound sector” and the “eastbound sector” but primarily the westbound sector. After she was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, the company agreed that the westbound sector would need more assistance, and it hired an employee to assist with both sectors.

Younger employee retained. However, the company undertook a reorganization after the westbound business declined from 495 bookings in 2014 to just 150 bookings in 2016 (and eventually dropped to 42 in 2017). Her manager was charged with crafting the reorganization plan, and he proposed keeping the employee on as a shipping associate. But the company’s two co-presidents did not adopt his plan; instead they terminated her and retained a 27-year old worker in that role. In all, the company laid off eight workers: the plaintiff and five other employees in October 2016 (four of the six were over 40 years old), followed by two more workers in June 2017.

The employee sued under the ADEA and Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). The employer moved for summary judgment, citing the company-wide RIF as the reason for her discharge. The district court denied the motion.

Qualified; she trained her replacement. The termination of the westbound sector employees was in fact a RIF; moreover, it was undisputed the employer carried out the layoffs for a legitimate business reason, and there was no evidence to the contrary. Also, the employer contended that the employee was not qualified for the shipping associate position. However, the employee presented evidence that she was qualified: The manager believed she was qualified, and the employee had trained the 27-year old who was given the job.

In addition, one of the co-presidents allegedly stated that she wanted to terminate the 64-year-old employee because she’d been sick and was too old, and was costing the company too much money. Given that the employer avoided terminating significantly younger, less-experienced employees in substantially similar positions but terminated the employee, the court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

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