- Despite a CEO's alleged ageist remarks, a 47-year-old bank employee was fired for insubordination, not age bias, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court has concluded (Pelcha v. MW Bancorp, Inc.; Watch Hill Bank, No. 20-3511 (6th Cir., Jan. 12, 2021)).
- The plaintiff was a long-time employee who, according to court documents, refused to comply with a new supervisor's procedure for requesting time off. She eventually acquiesced but the supervisor told the bank’s president and CEO about the incident and other issues such as an alleged negative attitude and failure to timely complete tasks. The president said he had "zero tolerance for insubordination" and fired the employee.
- She sued, alleging age discrimination. She pointed to three comments from the CEO: (1) that another employee in her eighties had a "limited shelf life" and had reached her "expiration date;" (2) that he intended to reduce that employee’s hours until she quit; and (3) that he would like to "hire younger tellers." A district court granted summary judgment and the 6th Circuit agreed; none of the statements were related to the plaintiff's termination and nothing suggested that the statements were more than isolated remarks, it said. The court also rejected the plaintiff's argument that the court should apply Title VII's standard for terminations involving multiple motivations that doesn't require plaintiffs to prove that sex was the only cause for termination. It declined, explaining that the standard for age discrimination requires plaintiffs to prove the age was the only reason they were fired.
To prevail on an Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) claim, a plaintiff must prove that age was the "but-for" cause of the adverse employer decision — a legal standard comes from a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. There has been an attempt to replace that requirement, however. The U.S. House of Representatives voted last year to change the standard to one that proponents say would make it easier to prove age bias in the workplace, but the bill stalled in the U.S. Senate.
And while the Pelcha appeals court reasoned that none of the statements submitted were enough to sustain a bias case, HR professionals may want to note that such comments can sometimes land employers in hot water. In one instance, a 58-year-old employee whose 52-year-old supervisor allegedly made multiple negative comments about her age was allowed to move forward with her age bias claim. On the other hand, the 2nd Circuit concluded that despite age-related remarks from executives, two former employees of Adloox Inc. were fired for poor job performance, not age discrimination. Such fact patterns illustrate the importance of compliance training for managers, experts have previously told HR Dive.