July 1996

Workplace Labor Update - Employer Left Uncovered In Sex – July 1996

2 min

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) specifically prohibits discrimination against individuals at least 40 years of age. Quite simply, the statute is violated where someone over 40 is discriminated against in favor of someone under 40. Is the law violated, however, where both individuals, the person discriminated against and the person benefiting therefrom, are at least 40? Lower courts have disagreed. The United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, recently answered this question, declaring that it is not necessary to demonstrate that the person benefiting from the discrimination is under 40.

In O’Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers, 64 U.S.L.W. 4243 (1996), a former regional manager for Consolidated - an operator of cafeterias and vending machines - sued Consolidated for age discrimination. O’Connor had been discharged at the age of 56, and replaced by a 40 year-old manager. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that O’Connor did not state a claim under the ADEA, because the individual who replaced him was also at least 40 years old, and thus both he and his replacement were members of the class protected by the statute. O’Connor appealed to the Supreme Court claiming he should not have to show that his replacement was less than 40 years old to sustain his ADEA case.

The Supreme Court agreed and held that O’Connor needed only to demonstrate that age was the motivating factor in his discharge, not that he was replaced by someone under 40 years of age. The Court analyzed that all that needs be shown in an age discrimination case is a logical connection between the age of the individual affected and the adverse employment decision. An inference of age discrimination exists where a 56 year-old is replaced by a 40 year-old. Thus, relative age between two individuals both within the protected class (those at least 40 years-old) can be the basis for an age discrimination lawsuit.

Although the Court rejected any requirement that a plaintiff show that he was replaced by someone under 40, the Court went on to state that no inference of discrimination is supported where a replacement is only insignificantly younger. Accordingly for example, no inference of age discrimination can be drawn where a 68 year-old is replaced by a 65 year-old.