Are Repeated Inquiries About A Worker’s Retirement Plans Evidence Of Age Discrimination
Through decades of experience fighting for the rights of employees, our age discrimination lawyers in Marion County, Florida have learned that employers frequently ask older employees about their retirement plans. Generally, asking employees about when they plan to retire is not, standing alone, evidence of age discrimination. Because asking employees about their retirement plans can be justified for business-related reasons, employers are afforded some latitude to seek information about employee retirement plans. As a result, an employer’s isolated inquiry about an employee’s retirement plans generally does not reflect an age-based discriminatory animus. However, if an employer’s inquiries about an employee’s retirement plans form a pattern, the repeated inquiries about retirement manifest a discriminatory intent to get rid of an older worker. In this article, our age discrimination lawyers in Marion County, Florida explain how the decision in Sloat v. Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Company, 18 F.4th (6th Cir. 2021) demonstrates that an employer’s repeated inquiries about an employee’s retirement plans are evidence of age discrimination.
Age Discrimination Lawsuit
In that case, a man named Sloat brought an age discrimination lawsuit against his former employer, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Company (“HP”), pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). The ADEA makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of age. Sloat claims that HP violated the ADEA by firing him because of his age.
In 2011, HP hired Sloat to develop training programs for its salespeople. Sloat was 54 years old at the time. For the next five years his performance reviews were positive: his managers found that his work “exceed expectations” in 2011, 2012, and 2015, and “significantly exceeded expectations” in 2013 and 2014. In each of those years, Sloat also received a 30% performance bonus.
Sloat’s fortunes began to change in October 2016, when he learned that his position would be transferred to a different group within HP. Sloat was then 60, which made him the oldest person reporting to his new manager, Hagler. In January 2017, Hagler held a meeting with his direct reports. During the meeting, Hagler addressed Sloat (in Sloat’s view sarcastically) as “young man” several times. When Sloat’s turn came to do a presentation, he initially fumbled with his laptop computer; Hagler stepped forward and said, “You’ve got old skills. You need vice president support on this”—and put the laptop into presentation mode himself.
“When Are You Going To Retire”
Meanwhile, on at least ten occasions after the January 2017 meeting, Hagler asked Sloat, “When are you going to retire?” Soon afterward, Hagler reassigned some of Sloat’s duties to another employee. Around that time—in March 2017—Hagler asked Sloat, “Why are you still here?” That same month, Hagler asked HP’s Vice President of Human Resources to reassign Sloat to a different position so that Sloat would no longer report to him.
In June 2017, Hagler recommended to HP’s human resources team that the company fire Sloat in a one-person work-force reduction, on the ground that Sloat’s job was redundant with another employee’s job. In response, the Vice-President of Human Resources emailed an HR subordinate, flagging that “there is a WFR [i.e., workforce reduction] situation in Hagler’s team that needs some legal attention” and asked the HR subordinate to talk with Hagler about “the rationale and any risks associated with” with firing Sloan. Hagler decided not to fire Sloan—but only after the HR subordinate told him to wait until the company proceeded with a “significant downsizing” that was pending then.
As part of corporate-wide downsizing, HP decided to break up Hagler’s team. In September 2017, Hagler sent a HP Vice President, Flynn, a PowerPoint presentation in which he indicated that Sloat’s future was “not clear.” About two weeks after that, Hagler and Flynn had a lengthy telephone call in which Hagler described Sloat’s job responsibilities and said he “didn’t have a great relationship” with Sloat. A day or two after that call, Flynn put Sloat “on the slate” for termination. A few weeks later—in the first conversation that Flynn ever had with Sloat—Flynn told Sloat that he would be fired.
Badgering About Retirement Reflects Age Bias
The trial court dismissed Sloat’s age discrimination claim. On appeal, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal and reinstated Sloat’s age discrimination claim. Unlike the reversed trial court, the Sixth Circuit determined that Sloat had produced sufficient evidence to establish that he was fired because of his age in violation of the ADEA to proceed to a jury trial.
In reversing the trial court, the Sixth Circuit focused on the inquiries about Sloat’s retirement plans. The appellate court observed that “retirement is obviously a concept closely associated with being older; the term ‘retirement age’ is not used to describe a person in the bloom of youth.” “That Hagler repeatedly badgered Sloat about retirement,” the court of appeals found, “would allow a jury to infer that the reason Hagler had prejudged Sloat’s capabilities was that Hagler thought he was too old for the job.” The court of appeals also rejected HP’s argument that Hagler’s inquiries about Sloat’s retirement were “not frequent.” The appellate court characterized this argument as “inexplicable” because “one or two inquiries along these lines from one’s boss might be dismissed as isolated; even more inquiries could form a pattern; but ten inquiries, a jury could easily find, is a campaign.” The repeated inquiries about Sloat’s retirement plans, the Sixth Circuit reasoned, permits “the straightforward inference that Hagler thought Sloat should retire because Hagler though he was too old for the job.” In other words, Sloat “has sufficient evidence that Hagler was biased against him because of age.”
The Sixth Circuit further determined that “Hagler’s inquires about retirement also support an inference that Hagler engaged in a series of actions, driven by bias, whose intended effect was to drive Sloat out of the company.” The appellate court explained that “one could reasonably infer” that “Hagler pushed to have Sloat leave voluntarily; to retire from a position is to leave it.” “But Sloan did not voluntarily leave,” the court of appeals pointed out, so “one could reasonably infer” that “Hagler sought to terminate him.” “Hagler’s first attempt took the form of a proposed one-person workforce reduction,” in which “Sloat’s position would be eliminated.” “Hagler abandoned that plan,” the appellate court noted, “only after [the Vice President of Human Resources] flagged it for ‘legal attention’ and [the HR subordinate] advised him to wait for a company-wide workforce reduction that was then pending.” “The latter fact,” the Sixth Circuit concluded, “supports an inference not only that Hagler wanted Sloat terminated but also that he wanted Sloat terminated in the upcoming company-wide workforce reduction in particular.”
Marion County Age Discrimination Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Florida, our age discrimination attorneys in Marion County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of employment discrimination victims. If you have experienced age discrimination in the workplace or have questions about your protection from age discrimination under federal employment discrimination law, please contact our office for a free consultation with our age discrimination lawyers in Marion County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes age discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.