Age Gap Must Be 'Significant' to Support Discrimination Claim - Employment Law - U.S. Sixth Circuit
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Age Gap Must Be 'Significant' to Support Discrimination Claim

Peggy Blizzard was hired as a part-time Associate Accounts Payable Clerk in the Business Office at Marion Technical College (MTC) in 1992. She was promoted to Accounts Payable Clerk 1 in 1996, and terminated from that position in April 2008, when she was 57. Blizzard sued MTC, claiming that her termination was based on age discrimination.

This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that there wasn't a large enough age gap between Blizzard and her replacement to prove support the age discrimination claim.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits an employer from discharging an individual "because of such individual's age." The burden of persuasion is on the plaintiff to show that "age was the 'but-for' cause of the employer's adverse action." The plaintiff can prove an ADEA violation with either direct or circumstantial evidence. If the plaintiff fails to present direct evidence of age discrimination, the claim is analyzed using the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green.

Under McDonnell Douglas, once the plaintiff succeeds in making out a prima facie case of age discrimination, the defendant must "articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for the termination. If the defendant meets this burden, then the burden of production shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the proffered reason is a pretext.

To establish a prima facie case of age discrimination, a plaintiff must show:

  1. Membership in a protected group,
  2. Qualification for the job in question,
  3. An adverse employment action, and
  4. Circumstances that support an inference of discrimination.

In this case, Blizzard alleged that she was replaced by a younger employee to support the inference prong.

While the courts agreed the Blizzard presented evidence of the first three prongs, they found that she failed to meet the fourth prong because there was not a significant age difference between Blizzard and her replacement. (The replacement was six-and-a-half years younger.)

The Sixth Circuit uses an age zone analysis to evaluate replacement age difference discrimination. In absence of direct evidence that the employer considered age to be significant, the court says that an age difference of six years or less between an employee and a replacement is not significant.

However, while an age difference of 10 or more years is generally considered significant, replacement of the employee by a person who is 6-to-10 years her junior must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

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