With many companies looking to move towards a younger work force, questions can sometimes be raised about the ways this is accomplished. Employees sometimes feel that they are forced out or denied promotions because of their age alone. However, proving these suspicions in court is not easy. As the plaintiff in Titsworth v. Shiawassee Sports Center recently discovered, there must be evidence to support the claims of an age-based dismissal in order for a court to act upon a discrimination lawsuit. Simply having a suspicion that age played a role in an employment decision will not be sufficient.
Jan Titsworth began working for Shiawassee Sports Center, Inc. (SSC) in 2005 as a salesperson. In 2009, SSC began a search to replace a manager who would soon be retiring. The retiring manager encouraged Titsworth to apply for the promotion. After some time, the list of applicants was narrowed to five finalists for consideration by the general manager, Lewis. Of the five finalists, two were 28 to 30 years old, one was in his forties, and two, including Titsworth, were in their fifties. When Lewis received the files of the finalists, he returned the files of the two oldest applicants without explaining the reason. Lewis did not know all the candidates for the job. Ultimately, the job was filled by Haywood, a 41-year old outside hire. All those involved with the hiring process said that Lewis never mentioned anything in regard to the ages of the applicants.
After this, Titsworth was laid off in late 2009. She said she had volunteered to be laid off since she was more financially stable than other employees. However, when she was scheduled to return to work in March 2010, Haywood informed her that business was too slow to bring her back. While Titsworth was laid off, several new workers were hired, ages 19, 21, 24, and 25. Titsworth was rehired to a part-time position in November 2011.
Titsworth brought suit against SSC claiming that she was denied the initial promotion because of her age. The suit was brought under the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act. To make a case of age discrimination, a plaintiff must establish four elements: (1) she belonged to a protected class, (2) she suffered an adverse employment action, (3) she was qualified for the position, and (4) the employer promoted a younger applicant under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. “[A] plaintiff must offer evidence showing something more than an isolated decision to reject a [protected] applicant. . . . As a matter of law, an inference of unlawful discrimination does not arise merely because an employer has chosen between two qualified candidates.” If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, causation between the discriminatory animus and the adverse employment decision is presumed. The defendant then has a burden to rebut that presumption by providing a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision. After losing at the trial court level, Titsworth appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.
In this case, the only element in dispute was the last element. In other words, Titsworth needed to provide evidence that she did not get the promotion because of her age. Unfortunately for Titsworth, the court concluded that the evidence she presented did not give rise to an inference of age discrimination. The court pointed out that just because Haywood was younger than Titsworth did not mean Haywood got the job because she was younger. Titsworth argued that she was more qualified than Haywood because she had she more experience which was pertinent to the specific job. However, the court said that Haywood’s experience was sufficiently similar to Titsworth’s so that it did not raise an inference of discrimination.
The court stated that there was simply no evidence to support Titworth’s claims, and attributing the hiring decision to discrimination amounted to nothing more than “mere speculation.” However, there was evidence suggesting that employment decisions regarding Titsworth related to her less-than-stellar job performance. The court further pointed out that when Titsworth was asked why she thought the hiring decision was made based on age, she responded: “I don’t have facts. I only have feelings about it.” Titsworth simply did not present the court with enough actionable evidence to move forward with the case. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary disposition to SSC.
This case is a reminder that not every employee complaint is an actionable claim. Real evidence is needed that an employer actually used age as a pretext for its decisions. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC represent many different types of businesses in employment-related disputes. If you would like more information on this topic or there is a claim being brought against you or your business, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to discuss your matter with you.