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A federal appeals court has reinstated an age discrimination lawsuit filed by a 41-year employee who was allegedly told upon his termination that he was being fired because he was “getting up in years.”
Kenneth James Lowe, who was born in 1948, began working for Tucson, Arizona-based Walbro LLC at its Cass City, Michigan, carburetor plant when he was 18, according to Wednesday’s ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Mr. Lowe was promoted several times and became an area manager in 2014, responsible for maintenance of the entire facility, the ruling said.
According to Walbro, the facility’s work began to change significantly around 2009 or 2010 to focus primarily on blow molding, a process used to manufacture hollow plastic products, and robotics.
In June 2016, Walbro hired Tom Davidson, 35, as general manager, and about six months later he removed two subordinates who maintained the blow-molding machine and robotics equipment from reporting to Mr. Lowe on the basis that Mr. Lowe’s understanding of robotics and blow molding was limited. This left him managing only one portion of the building as well as conducting general facility maintenance.
Mr. Lowe alleged that during the roughly two-year period of time he and Mr. Davidson overlapped at Walbro, Mr. Davidson made a series of disparaging statements about Mr. Lowe’s age, including calling him an “old man” and asking him when he planned to retire.
When he was told in June 2018 that he was being terminated, Mr. Lowe allegedly asked Mr. Davidson why and was told, “Well, you’re kind of getting up there in years, you’re at retirement age, you go one way and the company’s going the other.” Mr. Davidson and a human resources official denied this.
Mr. Lowe filed suit in U.S. District Court in Bay City, Michigan, charging violation of Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. The district court granted the company summary judgment dismissing the case and was overturned by a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel.
The district court quoted the conversation that allegedly occurred at Mr. Lowe’s termination “but failed to specifically focus on the language’s significance with regard” to Mr. Lowe’s age discrimination claim, the ruling said.
“We have no difficulty concluding that ‘you’re kind of getting up there in years, you’re at retirement age’ comment constitutes direct evidence of discrimination,” it said.
“The most natural reading of Davidson’s answer is that Lowe’s age was the reason why Walbro as an entity fired him, regardless of which specific members of the company’s decision-making team might have had an animus against him,” it said.
“True enough, Walbro’s story about why it fired Lowe — that it determined in good faith his position was no longer necessary — is plausible,” but Lowe’s story is plausible as well, the ruling said.
“A reasonable jury could conclude that Davidson was biased against Lowe because of Lowe’s age from the beginning of Davidson’s tenure based on Davidson’s repeated age-based remarks.
“That same jury could likewise doubt that Davidson actually had any serious concerns about Lowe’s job performance, reasoning that if he did, there would have been some documentary evidence of Lowe’s allegedly poor performance in the record, or that Davidson would have clearly communicated his concerns to Lowe at some point,” the decision said in reversing the lower court’s ruling and remanding the case for further proceedings.
Mr. Lowe’s attorney, Matthew D. Klakulak, of Giroux Trial Attorneys P.C. in Southfield, Michigan, said, “We’re obviously pleased. It’s a published decision that can serve as future precedent” in cases in which discriminatory statements are made.
Walbro’s attorney, David Cessante, a member of Clark Hill PLC’s labor and employment practice group, said in a statement, “We have read the Sixth Circuit’s opinion and respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling.”
In May, a U.S. District Court judge in San Jose, California, refused to dismiss age discrimination claims in a class-action lawsuit filed against HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. by former employees, stating they had provided sufficient evidence to proceed.