11th Circuit Rules that Replacing an Employee in His 40s with Another in His 40s Can Still Possibly Be Age Discrimination

A Florida man should not have had his age discrimination case thrown out, even though both he and his replacement were both in their 40s. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to reverse a summary judgment in favor of the man’s employer, stating that an age discrimination case requires only a “substantially younger” replacement and that the employee’s allegation that age bias was the reason the employer replaced him with a man seven years his junior was enough to meet this “substantially younger” standard.

The employee, Robert Liebman, had worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company for 28 years when MetLife fired him in 2013. He started in 1985 as a sales representative and, by 2013, had risen to the¬†position of Managing Director of the insurer’s West Palm Beach and Boca Raton offices. At the time of his termination, Liebman was 49 years old. Liebman sued MetLife for violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The employer asked the trial court to grant summary judgment in its favor on the age discrimination claim, noting that the employee that it selected to replace Liebman was also over 40 years of age and, therefore, a member of the same protected class as Liebman. The trial court sided with the employer and issued a summary judgment order in favor of the insurer.

The employee appealed, and he won. The appeals court stated that the law requires an employee alleging age discrimination to prove that he was a member of a protected class, that he was fired, and that he was replaced by a substantially younger replacement. Both the trial court and the appeals court agreed that the crux of the case came down to the third factor.

The trial court accepted MetLife’s argument that the employee could not meet the third criterion because he was 49 and his replacement was 42 years old. The appeals court stated that this was an incorrect way to analyze the third criterion. The appeals court pointed to a 1996 US Supreme Court case in which¬†the court expressly stated that the “fact that one person in the protected class has lost out to another person in the protected class is . . . irrelevant, so long as he has lost out because of his age.

The correct analysis was whether the replacement was “substantially younger,” regardless of his age. The appeals court decided that such an age gap did exist between Liebman and his successor. In several previous age discrimination cases, the 11th Circuit ruled that gaps as small as three, four, and five years were enough to qualify as “substantially younger.”

The appeals court also rejected the trial court’s conclusion that Liebman failed to prove that he was qualified for the Managing Director job that he held. If an employee “has enjoyed a long tenure at a certain position, we can infer that he or she is qualified to hold that particular position.” Although Liebman had been Managing Director for only three years, he had been performing essentially the same duties for another six years before that. Nine years doing the same work and nearly 30 years at the company was long enough to establish an inference of qualification for the job.

In the Liebman ruling, which covers Georgia, the court decided that an employee in his 40s was allowed to argue that his employer replaced him with a “substantially younger” employee, even though the replacement was also in his 40s. If you believe that you have lost your job due to age or other discrimination, it is always a good idea to talk to capable legal counsel. The knowledgeable Georgia employment discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have extensive experience in representing parties in age discrimination cases.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Georgia Job Applicant Allowed to Pursue Disparate-Impact Age Discrimination Claim, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Dec. 28, 2015

Employment Status and Your Federal Age Discrimination Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Aug. 26, 2015

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