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Beware! Single age comment might mean lawsuit

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Prevention is usually better than the cure, especially when litigation is concerned. Having to defend a lawsuit is expensive and disruptive, even if a judge tosses it out fairly quickly.

Recent case: Shirley Morrison worked for the city of Bainbridge for 27 years. She rose to head of the purchasing department.

Morrison challenged her supervisor on a purchase order he wanted her to prepare, claiming the expense wasn’t authorized by the city budget. When he said to go ahead anyway, she went to his supervisor, the city manager.

While she was technically correct (and the purchase order was cancelled), she was also criticized for going over her boss’s head. Plus, she was in­­formed that there were some problems with her work, including an apparent inability to get along with others. She said she would work on that problem.

A few months later, she won praise for her efforts as well as a merit raise. But then her secretary reported that Morrison had shouted at her. An investigation followed and Morrison was terminated after other witnesses confirmed the argument.

Morrison sued, alleging age discrimination. Her main piece of evidence was a comment she said she learned about. Allegedly, some­­one had heard Morrison’s supervisor say he was “going to get these old folks out of here and bring in some new blood.”

The case worked its way up to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately concluded that the single statement wasn’t direct evidence of age discrimination and that Morrison hadn’t shown that the reason given for her termination was a pretext for discrimination. But that was only after the employer spent thousands of dollars and hours defending the case. (Morrison v. City of Bainbridge, No. 10-14886, 11th Cir., 2011)

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