A recent decision from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs federal cases filed in Florida, clarified that the federal statute that governs age discrimination cases (the “Age Discrimination in Employment Act”) allows an employee to bring an age discrimination claim even where the employee was replaced by someone within the same protected age group. The ADEA prohibits employers from firing or otherwise discriminating against employees who are 40 years or older because of their age.
In Liebman v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Liebman was 49 years old and had been working for Metlife for 28 years when he was fired and replaced by someone who was 42 years old. The District Court granted summary judgment against Liebman, holding that he could not allege a viable claim for age discrimination because his replacement was over the age of 40 and therefore also a member of the ADEA’s protected class. The appellate court, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, reversed this ruling, noting that “the fact that one person in the protected class has lost out to another person in the protected class is irrelevant so long as he has lost out because of his age.” The proper inquiry is whether the plaintiff was replaced by someone “substantially younger.” The appellate court noted that the 7-year age difference between Liebman and his replacement had been found to meet the standard of “substantially younger” in prior court precedents. In fact, age differences of as little as 3 years have been found sufficient to satisfy this standard. Meeting this threshold standard does not guarantee victory for Liebman, but it does mean that he has stated a viable claim for age discrimination, and Metlife must come forward and articulate alleged “legitimate business reasons” for Liebman’s termination. Liebman will then have to prove that those articulated reasons are mere pretexts for discrimination against him because of his age.
The ADEA differs from other federal discrimination laws in this and other respects. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees based on their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. (“Sex” discrimination under Title VII has recently been expanded by some courts to include sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and separate federal statutes prohibit discrimination based on pregnancy and disability.) In these cases, a plaintiff cannot state a viable claim where their replacement is within the same protected class, i.e. where a fired female employee is replaced by a female employee. The ADEA also covers employers with 20 or more employees whereas Title VII covers employers with 15 or more employees. The ADEA originally capped its protections at 70 years of age, but this upper parameter was later removed. There are some exceptions to the ADEA’s protections, such as where there is a “bona fide occupational qualification” related to age, for example where a young actor is required to portray a young character, or for safety reasons in hazardous professions. The ADEA also prohibits mandatory retirement ages (with some limited exceptions), and prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee who complains of age discrimination.
Below is an article in the Daily Business Review featuring my commentary on the Liebman decision:
Mary Meeks has practiced law in Central Florida for nearly 30 years and has the highest rating by the Martindale-Hubbell National Lawyer’s Registry. She represents individuals, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies. Ms. Meeks is an accomplished civil trial lawyer who currently concentrates her practice in employment law, including cases involving discrimination based on race, color, national origin, age, disability, religion, gender, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual harassment and retaliation. For more information, www.MaryMeeksLaw.com