Employees who claim they were fired because of some form of discrimination don’t have a very high hurdle to jump to keep their lawsuits going.
They merely have to show that they were a member of a protected class, were discharged, were qualified for the position they lost and were replaced by someone outside their protected class. That’s the so-called prima facie case in a nutshell.
It’s then up to the employer to prove it had a nondiscriminatory reason for the decision. You can do that with good, accurate records.
In age discrimination cases, employees only have to show they were replaced by someone younger, or otherwise discharged because of age. You will have a much easier time showing that you had a legitimate reason unrelated to age for terminating the employee if you can cite specific business reasons to back up each part of your decision-making process.
Recent case: Louatrice Henderson, a black woman who was age 47 at the time, worked in the HR department at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She was part of a team whose job was to identify and assist center employees who wanted to transfer to different jobs within the institution. Henderson received good.
Then the cancer center hired consultants who were supposed to come up with recommendations for streamlining operations, including those in HR. At the end of the process, Henderson found herself without a job because her team was dissolved and she was passed over for a newly created position that absorbed some of the team’s previous tasks.
Henderson suspected discrimination because the people who were hired were all younger than she was. She sued, alleging age discrimination.
The court had no trouble concluding she had met her initial burden of proof. She was a member of a protected class, had been terminated in the reorganization, was qualified for the job she lost and was replaced by someone younger.
The cancer center then had to justify its move. First, it explained that it needed to reorganize its operations to remain competitive and save money.
Second, it was able to explain specific reasons clearly unrelated to age for each retention or hire. For example, for one of the jobs Henderson didn’t get, she met the minimum qualifications. But the selected candidate, who actually scored lower on her initial interview, was bilingual, unlike Henderson. The cancer center said it needed someone who could speak Spanish to job candidates and employees.
The court dismissed Henderson’s case largely because the cancer center could show the court why it made each decision. (Henderson v. University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, No. 01-08-00376, Court of Appeals of Texas, 1st District, 2010)
Final note: Remember, everyone belongs to at least one protected class. Therefore, a lawsuit can come from any employee. Your best defense is good record-keeping. If you can list good business reasons for each hiring, firing or disciplinary decision, you’re well on your way to winning the next lawsuit.
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