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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
As part of our commitment to assist and educate employees in fighting back against the abusive employment practices of employers, we offer a broad range of information about employment law issues in our employment blog.

Is The Refusal To Give An Employee A Reason For A Discharge Evidence Of Discrimination?

Businessman getting fired holding a box with stuff

Having been dedicated to fighting for the rights of victims of employment discrimination for almost twenty years, our Marion County, Florida employment discrimination attorneys have learned that employers often refuse to give employees a reason for their termination. When employees ask why they are being fired, employers often have two stock responses: (1) Florida is a right to work state and they do not have to give the employee a reason; or (2) the employee is an at-will employee who can be fired for any reason and they do not have to give the employee a reason. In many cases, employers refuse to give employees a reason for their discharge because discrimination is the real reason and employers are concerned that employees will initiate a lawsuit if given a demonstrably false or pretextual reason for the discharge. The recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in Steele v. Mattis, 2018 WL 3893169 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 10, 2018) is instructive in showing that an employer’s refusal to give an employee the reason for his or her termination can be used as evidence in establishing that discrimination is the real reason. Read on to learn more about the refusal to give reason for termination.

Employer Refuses To Give Reason For Discharge

In that case, Dr. Brett Steele (Steele) claimed that the Department of Defense (the Department) violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) by firing him because of his age. In August 2010, the Department hired Steele to serve as an associate professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs (the College). The College is a component of the Department that offers educational programs for professionals on international security matters. The Department hired Steele for a three-year term, but the first year was probationary.

Halfway through his probationary year, a dispute arose between Steele and his supervisors over his teaching methods and curriculum decisions. The supervisors expressed concerns that Steele strayed from the required syllabus and used an “unapproved concept” in teaching one of his subjects. Around the same time, the College was hit with budgetary cuts. As a result, the College decided that it would have to terminate three facility positions, and that it would choose them only from among its six probationary facility members, effective three months later at the end of the summer semester.

Steele claimed that the Dean of the College and other supervisors refused to tell him the reason for his termination. Steele later resigned on the eve of his termination date in order to avoid “getting a horrible black mark of being terminated from a government position.” Shortly after Steel’s termination, the College hired two new associate professors, both of whom were under the age of forty. The College also hired a third professor who was younger than Steele to take over the teaching of most of Steele’s courses.

Supervisor Makes Discriminatory Remarks

Steele produced evidence that his first-line supervisor, Bolanos, who was directly involved in the termination process repeatedly made discriminatory age-based remarks directly to him. According to Steele, Bolanos told him that older employees are “stubborn,” “difficult to work with,” and “cantankerous.” Bolanos also allegedly “pointed to a particular older person as a case study in why it’s not good to have lots of older employees at [the College].” At the same time, Bolanos remarked that “young people are such a breath of fresh air,” “eager to please,” “work hard,” are “enthusiastic,” and are the “kind of young people who are making [the College] marvelous.” Bolanos also allegedly told Steele that the College had become “much better” because “all these younger people” were hired.

Why Hide Reason From The Employee?

The trial court dismissed Steele’s age discrimination claim. In doing so, the trial court ruled that Steele failed to demonstrate that the College’s proffered explanation for his discharge—budget cuts—was a pretext for age discrimination. The trial court further found that the alleged discriminatory age-based comments by Bolanos were “stray remarks” and irrelevant. On appeal, the D.C. Circuit reversed the trial court’s dismissal and reinstated Steele’s age discrimination claim. In doing so, the appellate court concluded that, based on the totality of the evidence, a jury could find that the College fired Steele because of his age.

In reversing the trial court, the D.C. Circuit focused on the College’s refusal to tell Steele why he had been terminated. Although the Department claimed in the litigation context that Steele was fired because of budget reductions which necessitated the termination of three faculty members, the College never explained why Steele “was one of those whose job was chosen for the chopping block.” In other words, the appellate court explained, “the College came forward with a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for firing someone, but not for firing Steele rather than another probationary faculty member.” “In the absence of an individualized explanation for why or how Steele was chosen,” the court of appeals reasoned, “jurors could sensibly conclude that the College’s story comes up short.” “To jurors,” the appellate court observed, “the College’s proffered rationale could ring especially hollow when combined with the refusal of the Dean and other supervisors to tell Steele at the time of his termination why he had been targeted.” “If budget cuts made the College do it,” the court of appeals noted, “why hide that reason from Steele.?”

Disturbing & Powerful Evidence Of Discrimination

In reversing the trial court, the D.C. Circuit also focused on the alleged discriminatory age-based comments by Bolanos. Although the College tried to brush the remarks off as immaterial, the court of appeals found that the remarks were highly probative evidence of age discrimination against Steele because Bolanos was directly involved in the termination process. Bolanos’ statements disparaging older workers and favoring younger ones “gave voice to the very type of ‘arbitrary’ stereotypes and prejudices about older workers that Congress enacted the ADEA to halt.” “Had similar statements been made about workers based on their race and gender,” the appellate court reasoned, “the comments no doubt would have been treated as disturbing and powerful evidence of discrimination.” Thus, the court of appeals concluded, Bolanos’ “open hostility to older workers should have been recognized for what it is—direct evidence of illegal discrimination, not harmless ‘stray remarks.’”

Free Consultation With Marion County Discrimination Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have almost twenty years of experience representing employees who have been the victims of discrimination in the workplace. If you have been subjected to discrimination at work or have questions about your rights as an employee, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Marion County, Florida employment discrimination attorneys. Our employee rights law firm takes employment 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.

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