Appeals Court Reinstates Employee's Age Discrimination Claim Against Employer

August 21, 2014

In June, the Massachusetts Appeals Court reinstated an age discrimination claim brought by a former employee against her former employer, the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), in which the employee claimed that she was demoted, and constructive terminated, as a result of age discrimination.

In Younker v. Department of Transitional Assistance, the employee claimed that her demotion and subsequent resignation from the DTA constituted a violation of M.G.L. c. 151B, § 4(1C). That statute provides that it is an unlawful discriminatory practice for "the commonwealth or any of its political subdivisions, by itself or its agent, because of the age of any individual, to refuse to hire or employ or to bar or discharge from employment such individual in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment unless pursuant to any other general or special law."

The employee had been employed with the DTA for 42 years. She was repeatedly promoted, rising from her initial post as a social worker to become the director of the Davis Square office in Somerville. She was later appointed the director of two merged offices. In 2009, the employee was informed that she was being demoted. A director from another local office replaced the employee as director of her office, and the employee was demoted to assistant director. The employee resigned one month later, believing that her demotion amounted to constructive termination.

At the time of the demotion, the employee was 70 years old, while the replacement director was 53 years old. It was undisputed that that at the time of her demotion, the employee was not given a reason for her removal from the directorship. After insisting on a notice in writing, the employee received a letter that provided written confirmation of the reassignment, but again did not state a justification for the demotion.

The DTA moved for summary judgment of the employee's claims in the DTA's favor, arguing that the employee had been demoted based on the belief that the replacement director would be better able to resolve issues with traffic flow and customer service in that office. The lower court found that there was no genuine issue of material fact to be decided by a jury, and allowed the summary judgment motion. The employee appealed.

In an age discrimination action, the employee may prove a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination and shift the burden to the employer to produce a lawful explanation for the treatment accorded the employee. If the reason given by the employer is the real reason for its action and it is a nondiscriminatory one, the burden shifts back to the employee to prove that the employer's facially proper reason was not the real reason for the action.

Here, the employee made out a prima facie case of age discrimination, shifting the burden to the DTA to give a lawful reason for the employee's demotion. The DTA produced affidavits and witness testimony to argue that it demoted the employee because it decided that a management restructuring was the best way to address the traffic flow and congestion problems in that office's waiting room, and thus shifted the burden back to the employee to prove unlawful discrimination.

The Appeals Court held that this burden-shifting proved that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the DTA's proffered legitimate business reason was in fact the reason for the employee's demotion. Under Massachusetts law, where there is circumstantial evidence in a case and the evidence may be viewed as supporting a conclusion that the employer's proffered reason is false, the case must go to the jury. The Appeals Court noted that in this case, the record revealed no explanation as to why the employee was thought inadequate to perform the task handed to the new director, or why the new director was considered a better choice. Accordingly, the Appeals Court reversed the summary judgment, and reinstated the employee's age discrimination claim to be tried before a jury.