The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision determining that an auto parts supplier in Caro, MI, had not committed age discrimination under Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Right Act. Walbro LLC fired the plaintiff, a department manager and 41-year veteran, allegedly based upon his age. He was 60 years old at the time. Lowe v. Walbro LLC (Case 19-2386)
Walbro LLC countered that it terminated the plaintiff because of a “culmination or a series of things” including failing to maintain his skills that in turn lead to lower performance, certain inappropriate behaviors that were documented, and finally the fact that Walbro was eliminating his position. Plaintiff pointed to numerous ageist comments by his supervisor as proof he was in fact fired due to his age.
The Sixth Circuit Court saw this situation as what is called a mixed motive case where a person is subject to an adverse employment action for both legitimate and illegal reasons. In such cases, the plaintiff has to show that the employer’s age bias was a “substantial” or “motivating” factor in their decision to terminate his employment.
Some of the exchanges between the plaintiff and Walbro’s management allegedly included his manager commenting that he had been working there longer than his boss and stating, “old man, aren’t you ready to retire?” Walbro denied these statements were ever made and countered that the plaintiff had engaged in inappropriate and bullying behavior.
Comments and behavior aside, Walbro stated that the plaintiff had not kept up with necessary training as the plant operations converted from one product to another. This change involved new equipment that required new skills to maintain. Rather than offering the plaintiff training, it appears Walbro just reduced the responsibilities of his job over time – never offering to re-train him. This, plus the question around whether there had been an age-biased statement made, led the court to find a question of fact sufficient to reverse the lower court.
This decision shifts the ground a bit around mixed-motive discrimination cases in favor of plaintiff-employees. Employers that wish to get a favorable decision will need to show more than legitimate business reasons (poor performance and eliminating the job) to defend against alleged underlying discriminatory allegations.
Source:Law 360. 6th Cric. Revives Worker’s Age Bias Suite Against Manufacturer (8/27/2020)