AGE DISCRIMINATION: Don’t Be Afraid To Enforce Legitimate Workplace Rules
As long as an employer doesn’t apply different standards to employees based on their race, gender, or another protected status, it may terminate its relationship with an employee in a protected class who engages in insubordination or other clear misconduct. In the following case, an employee who shouted at his supervisor and committed other offenses couldn’t successfully demonstrate that his employment ended because of age discrimination.
Jerry Sanders was employed as a news reporter for a local television station. After the station changed news directors, Sanders disagreed with changes made by the new manager and didn’t like the fact that “senior” was removed from his job title.
Following the change in management, reporters were told they would be “Web producing” their own stories and would receive training in how to do that. Immediately after receiving the training, Sanders was told that he would be producing stories on the Web that day. He was also asked to help with updates on school and business closings due to a significant snowfall that had affected the viewing area.
Sanders lost his composure and yelled at his supervisor, “I don’t know how to do it, I can’t do it and I won’t do it!” His supervisor yelled back, “Don’t ever tell me what you will or will not do!” Sanders then declared that he wasn’t feeling well and was going home. Things went downhill from there as the supervisor directed him to go home and not come back until he was told to. Sanders walked through the building telling everyone he was “going to quit.”
When tempers had cooled, Sanders met with the station manager about the argument. Despite his pleas that he be permitted to return to work, the station manager decided to sever the employment relationship, citing his misbehavior and refusal to handle an assigned responsibility. The station manager treated Sanders’ exclamations that he was quitting as a resignation.
Sanders sued the TV station in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, claiming constructive discharge, retaliation, and age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.
Evidence of age discrimination
Sanders produced a host of circumstantial evidence that he was discriminated against on the basis of his age. He claimed that he was asked about his intentions for completing his contract (which ended in 2012). He claimed that he was referred to as “old school,” “old fashioned,” and “old” on a number of occasions. He also claimed that a news anchor told him one employee described him as “out of step, boring, [and] . . . old fashioned.”
Sanders complained that management removed him from the crew that reported live from major political campaign headquarters and gave those assignments to younger reporters. He was moved from the day shift to the morning shift and then back to the day shift within three months. He claimed he was ordered to perform new tasks for which he lacked experience or training. Unfortunately for him, the court noted that although he made general allegations of being ridiculed about being “old fashioned, old school and old,” he was unable to identify how often or when those comments occurred or point to anyone else who heard them.
Sanders conceded that he had never complained to anyone about the alleged discrimination before he met with the station manager. In addition, he admittedly referred to himself as a “senior” reporter in an e-mail and asked photographers on staff to “help an old man out.” He also called himself an “old man” in an e-mail to a fan. Nevertheless, he claimed that there was a plan to get rid of older employees and that his supervisor was trying to constructively discharge him (get him to quit) by forcing him to perform tasks he wasn’t qualified to perform. However, he never complained of discrimination until he “blew up” and tendered his resignation.
Court is not persuaded
Finding that Sanders did not demonstrate that his employment relationship would have been terminated “but for” his age, the district court granted summary judgment (i.e., pretrial dismissal) to the employer. Further, the court found that even if Sanders had established a prima facie (i.e., initial) case of age discrimination, his employer articulated a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its decision — insubordination and voluntary resignation.
Sanders’ employment status didn’t change between the time he first raised claims of age discrimination and the employer’s decision to accept his resignation, so there was no evidence that he was targeted for retaliation. In addition, his own conduct made it impossible for him to show that the station’s decision to end the employment relationship was unrelated to his misconduct and wouldn’t have happened had he not mentioned age discrimination in a meeting that occurred in an effort to salvage his job.Sanders v. Gray Television Group, Inc., 110 F.E.P. 589 (E.D. Ky., 2010).
It’s important to remember that when an employee engages in serious misconduct, you must investigate the situation and administer any necessary discipline if you want to preserve your rights to manage your workforce. If you fail to respond to serious misconduct, you might find it more difficult to justify a termination in response to a less serious offense. ✤
If you have any questions or need help, please contact any member of the Greenebaum Doll & McDonald Labor and Employment Department.
Copyright 2010 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC
KENTUCKY EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual problems but rather to provide information about current developments in Kentucky employment law. Questions about individual problems should be addressed to the employment law attorney of your choice.