Age Discrimination No Longer Requires Proof of Younger Replacement

In EEOC v. Lehi Roller Mills Co., the United States District Court for the District of Utah held that a plaintiff alleging age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) need not show that he was replaced by someone that was substantially younger if direct evidence is presented creating an inference of discrimination.

Under the traditional approach, a prima facie case of age discrimination under the ADEA requires the plaintiff to show that his or her replacement was substantially younger, creating the inference that the employment decision was based on illegal age discrimination.  Lehi Roller Mills indicates that the age disparity may no longer be a required element.

In that case, James Breece, a 49-year-old baking company employee, filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging he was fired because of his age.  The employer moved for summary judgment on the grounds that that the EEOC did not establish a prima facie case of age discrimination because the plaintiff’s replacement was not substantially younger.

The district court rejected this argument, stating that where there is direct evidence which allows for an inference of discrimination, the substantially younger showing is “flexible” and “not a required element.”  It held that there can be a finding of age discrimination even though the hired replacement was older than the plaintiff.

In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that during the meeting placing him on leave, he was told that he was “getting old,” and that the president of the company explained the termination to plaintiff’s daughter by stating he was “not as young as he used to be.”  There was also evidence presented that when discussing the termination, the chief operations officer stated that the company] wanted to bring in a new, younger management team.

The court stated that even though the employer never directly said it was firing plaintiff because of his age, the alleged statements “constitute[d] direct evidence of discriminatory motive under the ADEA.”  Accordingly, it denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

Lehi Roller makes clear that a plaintiff bringing a claim for age discrimination need not necessarily establish all the traditional elements of a prima facie case if direct evidence is presented that creates the inference that the employment decision was based on an illegal discriminatory criterion.

Mark Chung is a summer associate in Barger & Wolen’s San Francisco office.