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Watch What You Say And Use Objective Criteria When Doing A RIF Or You Might Face An Age Discrimination Claim


In the recent Sixth Circuit case of Blair v. Henry Filters Inc. , 6th Cir., No. 05-2437, 10/15/07, the Court revived the Plaintiff’s age discrimination claim. The Plaintiff, Richard Blair, was a salesman for Henry Filters, Inc., an Ohio-based seller of industrial liquid filtration systems. In 1998, the Company began to consolidate its sales teams. In 2001, John Tsolis, the Company’s Vice President of Sales and Blair’s direct supervisor, informed Blair that he would swap sales accounts with another younger salesperson, which resulted in Blair receiving a less productive account. At this meeting, Tsolis allegedly told Blair he was “too old” to work his previous account because the buyers were younger. Tsolis also threatened to terminate Blair if he told anyone the reason for his reassignment. Thereafter, Tsolis repeatedly made derogatory comments regarding Blair’s age, calling him “the old man” and joking about his ability to do everyday tasks like climbing stairs. Tsolis was also overheard saying to his boss that he “needed to set up a younger sales force.” At some point, the Company began to experience financial difficulties and began to reduce its workforce. Between 2001 and 2003, the Company terminated sixty-seven employees. In August 2003, Tsolis told Blair that he was being terminated, but would not provide Blair an explanation. Blair was 57 years old when he lost his job. Blair brought an age discrimination action against Henry Filters in federal district court. The district court granted summary judgment to the Company finding that Blair failed to show the decision to terminate was based on bias rather than legitimate business reasons. The Sixth Circuit reversed.


The Sixth Circuit held that Blair had offered sufficient evidence to indicate that he was terminated because of his age. The Court found that although the Company argued that Tsolis did not have authority to hire and fire salespeople, the evidence showed that Tsolis frequently threatened to fire salespeople, without contradiction from his superiors, and actually participated in hiring and firing decisions. Furthermore, the Court found Tsolis’s age-related comments provided sufficient evidence that he was motivated by bias and other evidence indicated that he participated in the decision to terminate Blair. Finally, the Court held that Henry Filters’s assertion that Blair’s reassignment and termination were motivated by business conditions could be found pretextual (i.e., not the real reason for its actions) based on Tsolis’s comments and refusal to explain why Blair was selected for layoff.


This case has several lessons for employers. First, employers are responsible for the discriminatory acts of their supervisors and need to take steps to train them and remedy any such actions. Second, supervisors who act inappropriately will cause liability issues down the road. And lastly, employers need to use objective criteria when implementing a RIF. The failure to do so could result in a discrimination suit.

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