An appeals court rejected an impossibly high standard of proof for a worker alleging age discrimination, ruling as AARP had urged.
D. Archie Hale was employed by ABF Freight systems during two periods of time until his termination in 2009, when he was 62 years old. In early 2009, his supervisor began to criticize his performance in both emails and official reports, to which he provided responses and explanations. Notwithstanding the earlier criticisms, his supervisor gave him a positive performance review in June 2009.
In March 2009, his supervisor on more than one occasion asked Hale about his plans for retirement and made statements to others about Hale’s upcoming retirement. One other employee testified that the supervisor once told him “[Hale] is going to leave here when he is 62. I am going to see to it. He has been here long enough, and he is going to go on his Social Security.” In October 2009, after Hale made a mistake in dispatching drivers, his supervisor fired him.
Hale sued, alleging among other things, age discrimination in violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Tennessee law. ABF successfully moved to dismiss the case, arguing that his supervisor’s statements were not direct evidence of age discrimination and that there was no direct link between statements about eligibility for social security and age. The court noted that it might rule differently had the supervisor said that she would see to it that Hale left because he was 62. The court also ruled that Hale had not met the burden of rebutting ABF’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for termination.
AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief filed by AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys reviewed the standards in other courts and argued that the evidence burden imposed by the trial court in Hale’s case is not only one of the strictest in the federal courts, but almost impossible to meet. A plaintiff would need to provide a formulaic statement including the exact word “because” in order to meet the standard to even make it into the courtroom.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit agreed. It found that Hale had offered direct evidence that age was a factor in his termination, providing evidence directly linking Hale’s age to a decision to terminate. Moreover, the court ruled, the evidence was sufficient to meet the court’s requirements for circumstantial evidence in a case such as this.
What’s at Stake
Impossibly high evidentiary burdens for age discrimination victims render carefully enacted age discrimination laws practically useless. Age discrimination victims will be dissuaded from bringing meritorious suits for fear that they can not meet their burden of proof without magic words. If workers cannot enforce their rights, those rights are reduced to nothing more than words on paper.
Hale v. ABF Freight Systems was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.