Employment Law Journal

Minimal Evidence Ruled Sufficient to Support Age Discrimination

By Bruce Voss

An employee plaintiff needs to produce relatively little evidence to enable an age discrimination claim to proceed to trial, the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals ruled in a case originating on Kauai.

In Simmons v. Aqua Hotels and Resorts, the hotel owner had filed for bankruptcy, and the hotel manager was attempting to reduce operating costs.  The manager told the plaintiff Simmons she would need to relocate to Kauai to keep jer job as Director of Sales and Marketing, and Simmons first said she did not intend to move to Kauai.  The manager then restructured the director of sales position and subsequently told the 64-year-old Simmons she would have to apply for the new position if she wanted it.  Simmons did not apply, and the manager hired a 52-year-old woman to fill the new sales position.

There was no direct evidence of any age discrimination, but Simmons filed a lawsuit anyway, claiming that the manager’s explanation was a “pretext” for age discrimination.  The Circuit Court dismissed the claim, but the ICA reversed and sent the claim back for trial.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court law, the ICA stated that a “plaintiff’s prima facie case of discrimination, coupled with a disbelief of the employer’s explanation, may permit the trier of fact to comclude the employer unlawfully discriminated.”  On any employer’s motion, at least at the summary judgment stage, all inferences as to the evidence must be viewed in a light most favorable to the employee.

In this case–even though Simmons initially told the hotel manager she didn’t want to relocate to Kauai and never applied for the new sales position–the ICA still found there was enough conflict in the evidence that a “rational fact-finder could infer that (the manager’s) stated reasons for (Simmons’) termination lacked credibility and were pretextual.”  The Court’s discussion failed to note that the person hired to take the new position was herself over 50 years old, and only 12 years younger than Simmons.

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