That’s the vibe I got from reading this recent Fifth Circuit decision affirming the lower court’s dismissal of age discrimination claims.
The plaintiff was one of five Zone Human Resources Directors (ZHRDs) for the defendant. Each ZHRD had its own zone.
In 2018, the defendant decided that each ZHRD would have to reside in the zone where they worked. This decision impacted three of the ZHRDs, including the plaintiff. The defendant would provide financial relocation benefits to the ZHRDs who agreed to relocate. Still, those who did not agree to relocate by a specific date could apply for open positions at the defendant or accept a severance package. The other two took the severance package.
But not the plaintiff.
No, she didn’t want to move. At least not to Dallas, where the defendant wanted to relocate her. However, the plaintiff was receptive to moving to Houston because that’s where her daughter lived.
At first, the defendant resisted Houston and offered the plaintiff a few severance packages instead.
Now, enter the lawyer who sent a letter to the defendant alleging that its relocation policy was discriminatory based on age because the defendant was not forcing any of the three youngest ZHRDs to relocate. Settlement demands accompanied the correspondence.
About a month later, the defendant responded, unequivocally denying her allegations of age discrimination and claiming that it instituted the relocation policy to advance legitimate business interests. However, it indicated that it would allow the plaintiff to move to Houston and keep her job.
Not long after, the company followed up with a phone call to the plaintiff to confirm that moving to Houston was fine. However, the plaintiff didn’t want any further conversation about the matter and instructed the defendant to speak only to her lawyer.
Less than a month later, the plaintiff separated from the company and sued for age discrimination.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals in connection with the terms and conditions of their employment based on their age.
The defendant had an obvious, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating the plaintiff’s employment. Namely, she did not relocate as the company required.
So, the burden shifted to the plaintiff to show that this reason was pretextual. And that didn’t go as planned.
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The plaintiff argued that the defendant did not require its three youngest ZHRDs to relocate. True, but they already lived in the zones they served.
Plus, the defendant eventually relented and offered the plaintiff the opportunity to move to Houston. But she told them to talk to her lawyer instead.
Ultimately, the plaintiff’s age bias claims failed because she offered no evidence that the defendant’s reason for terminating her — non-compliance with its relocation policy — was pretextual.
In fairness to the lawyer, perhaps the plaintiff was the tail wagging the dog here. And what a dog her age discrimination case proved to be.