On November 17, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for Latrobe Specialty Steel Company in an age discrimination suit brought by four former long-time employees. Hodczak v. Latrobe Spec. Steel Co. (3d Cir. 2011). The employees, all of whom were in their fifties and sixties, claimed the company fired them in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
According to the court, the plaintiffs succeeded in establishing the four elements necessary to prevail in an age discrimination case: 1) membership in a protected class; 2) an adverse employment decision; 3) that they were qualified to hold their positions; and 4) that they were replaced by significantly younger employees. Consistent with the burden-shifting analysis used in discrimination cases, the employer was then entitled to defend itself by identifying a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.
In its defense, the company claimed the employees were fired for emailing sexually explicit photographs in violation of the company’s electronic communications policy. The company discovered the emails when it investigated a prior charge of sexual harassment against one of the plaintiffs. Through its investigation, the company learned that all of the employees it ultimately fired sent emails containing sexually explicit content on an almost daily basis. Consequently, the court held that the terminations were legitimate and nondiscriminatory.
This case illustrates how a thorough investigation performed prior to a termination can mean the difference between a six-figure verdict for your former employees and a finding of no liability, whatsoever. While it may seem like a waste of time when the proper course of action is obvious, it’s cheap insurance when an employee—current or former—claims their civil rights have been violated.