When conducting a large scale reduction in force, employers are usually concerned over possible age discrimination claims resulting from the layoffs. Even when layoff selection decisions are made on an individual basis, the result can have a disparate impact on older workers, especially if the employer’s selection criteria heavily weigh cost reductions. A new Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision recognizes the seemingly logical point that such actions do not involve age discrimination against an individual when his entire work group is laid off.
In Hinds v. Sprint/United Mgmt. Co., the plaintiff alleged that age contributed to the decision to eliminate his position. His employer sought to dismiss the claim, noting that the plaintiff’s entire work group had been terminated as part of the restructuring. The plaintiff argued that this was still age discrimination when it came to him, because Sprint had failed to follow its own internal policies in making the layoff decisions.
The Tenth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff could not raise a prima facie case of age discrimination. He could not show that any younger employees in his work group were retained instead of older workers. The court found that younger retained employees in his same pay grade, but in different work groups were not relevant to the plaintiff’s claim that he was discriminated against due to his age. The plaintiff was never qualified to assume these younger employees’ jobs. In this context, the failure to follow internal procedures is not evidence of age discrimination.
In the end, the court did not buy the plaintiff’s apparent claim that his entire department was eliminated as a pretext to get rid of him due to his age. When conducting reductions in force, employers can greatly reduce the chances of discrimination claims by using selection criteria that clearly and logically do not involve exercise of subjective evaluations of employee value.