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RIF’d employee can bring age-bias claim

The Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled in a split decision that a terminated employee could bring a “cat’s paw” discrimination claim based on evidence that a corporate reduction in force was tainted by age bias at upper levels, even if the manager implementing the RIF used nondiscriminatory criteria to identify affected workers.

“Cat’s paw” liability refers to a situation in which an employee or supervisor, motivated by discriminatory intent, influences an otherwise neutral decisionmaker to take an adverse action against an employee.

In the case before the court, defendant Schneider Electric USA laid off 54-year-old plaintiff Mark Adams in the last of three RIFs conducted in the company’s Boston, Massachusetts office between April 2016 and January 2017.

Though manager Kenneth Colby allegedly used neutral criteria focusing on his team’s needs in deciding who to lay off, 22 of the 24 workers fired in the three waves of cuts were over age 50, with one of the others being older than 40.

Email exchanges following the RIFs suggested that corporate higher-ups had viewed the “aging” Boston workforce as a liability and that the layoffs were meant to make room for “younger talent.”

Additionally, Colby — possibly aware of the company’s desire to get younger talent — allegedly discouraged another department leader from retaining Adams in a separate capacity.

The company, seeking summary judgment on Adams’ state age discrimination claim, categorized any ageist comments in the emails as “stray remarks” by non-decisionmakers remote in time, while also emphasizing that a number of older workers survived the RIF and that Colby applied neutral criteria.

Accordingly, the company argued, no reasonable jury could find that its stated reason for the layoffs, to cut costs, was pretextual.

But the Appeals Court denied the motion.

“The company makes many persuasive arguments why a jury should render a defense verdict, but it does so by viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the company,” Judge Vickie L. Henry wrote for the 3-2 majority. “A jury may take the company’s explanations for the RIF and the selection of Adams for the RIF at face value, but they are not required to. Adams’s proffer at the summary judgment stage was sufficient to raise genuine issues of material fact whether age discrimination motivated the adverse employment action — a question that a jury and not this court should resolve.”