- A nurse fired at the end of her 90-day probationary period can proceed with her age discrimination claim against Anderson Regional Medical Center, a federal district court had determined (Vaughan v. Anderson Regional Medical Center, No. 3:14-CV-979 (N.D. Miss., Oct. 4, 2018)).
- Susan Vaughan alleged in her lawsuit that, during their first shift together, her assigned supervisor said the company needed "someone who isn’t as old as you are." Additionally, the supervisor allegedly said "I don’t know why [they] hired you. You’re pretty old to be a part of this team, and we needed someone younger," adding, "hope you can keep up." The comments continued during the next month, with the supervisor and another nurse calling Vaughan "kinda old and gray headed." When Vaughan complained, she was told the supervisor "probably didn't mean anything by it." Although Vaughan had received positive feedback at her 60-day evaluation, she was fired at the end of her 90-day introductory period. The medical center claimed Vaughan was fired because she refused to work with other nursing supervisors, kept trying to impose her former employer's practices and was unable to accept constructive criticism from other nursing supervisors.
- Though it dismissed Vaughan's claims for compensatory and punitive damages, the court denied the employer's subsequent motion for summary judgment on Vaughn's age discrimination and retaliation claims. The "ageist" remarks, combined with the supervisor's apparent influence over Vaughan's termination, could show age discrimination.
More than 50 years since the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, officials from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have said that age discrimination remains employment's "open secret" and that it is often viewed as more acceptable than other forms of discrimination. The agency has warned employers, however, that it will focus on age discrimination in its litigation.
Vaughan argued a "cat's paw" theory of liability rather than alleging direct discrimination by the individual with final authority to fire her. Under that theory, Vaughan had to establish that: 1) a co-worker exhibited discriminatory age animus; and 2) that the same co-worker possessed influence over the decision maker. The court said Vaughan easily met this standard. Although the vice president of nursing was the ultimate decision maker, he assigned someone else to supervise Vaughan and that individual reported on Vaughan's work performance. Vaughan alleged that her supervisor, who was unhappy with her age, influenced the decision to fire her.
In a separate case involving a UPS driver, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that federal law does not establish "a general civility code" for the workplace. Still, employers hoping to avoid having to defend legal claims may want to focus on training for managers and supervisors, former EEOC commissioner Jenny Yang previously told HR Dive. Research suggests unconscious bias training can also be successful, especially if it's offered in a generic way. When employees accept that everyone has biases, they may be more willing to examine their own.