Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"Hang Up Your Superman Cape" and Age Discrimination: 8th Circuit Reverses Grant of Summary Judgment

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in reversing a lower district court's grant of summary judgment for an employer in an age discrimination case under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA), found that the Plaintiff, a 76-year-old former security guard for Securitas, established a prima facie case of age discrimination, in part because of the decision makers in his termination made comments about his age including the Plaintiff's need "to hang up his Superman cape."

The case involves Carlyn Johnson, age 76, who performed work for Securitas, a private company that provides security services for various venues across the country.  Johnson had been working 20 consecutive hours one night when he collided with an unoccupied truck with a vehicle he was driving and was subsequently terminated.  What more than likely led Johnson to believe his termination was based on age is the fact that while he was employed with Securitas, his supervisor, who was later involved in the decision to terminate Johnson, made comments such as Johnson "needed to hang up his Superman cape," was "too old to be working," and needed to retire.  The supervisor also compared Johnson to his father who was 86-years-old and had stopped working.  The district court, in granting Securitas' motion for summary judgment, held that these remarks were "stray remarks, remote in time, and unrelated to the decision to terminate Johnson."  The 8th Circuit disagreed.

The problem with the district court's disregard for the comments about Johnson's age is that it went toward the fourth element in the prima facie case in proving age discrimination claims under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting scheme whenever the employee is not replaced with a younger worker:  showing that age was a factor in the employer's decision to terminate.  After all, in discovery it was found that this supervisor had a role in the decision to terminate Johnson.  It is also important to note that the district court did not find the "Superman cape" comment had anything to do with age while it appears the 8th Circuit did.

The case is Johnson v. Securitas Security Services USA Inc., No. 12-2129 (8th Cir. Aug. 26, 2013).

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