After an employee at an auto parts supplier was discharged
for sexual harassment, one of his co-workers later claimed that a manager
revealed that the real reason for the employee's termination was his age. Did a
jury have enough evidence to decide which was the real reason for his
termination? A state court of appeals recently reviewed the evidence in such a
What happened. Salvador Reyes, who had worked for over 20 years for auto parts supplier AutoZone
[location unidentified in court records], was 62 when the company discharged
him for violation of its sexual harassment policy after a co-worker complained
that he and a younger co-worker, Jim Alvarado, customarily greeted her with a
kiss and a hug.
When Alvarado, also accused of harassment, learned that Reyes
had been terminated, he chose resignation as preferable to discharge for sexual
harassment, and tried to turn in his keys to manager Jesse Villareal. But
Villareal told Alvarado that "whoever needs to be punished has been punished"
and that "AutoZone [was] just trying to get rid of the old people" because "old
ones have a certain way of working and AutoZone was trying to make changes."
Alvarado, who was not terminated, told Reyes what Villareal had said. Reyes
sued the company for age discrimination.
A jury found in his favor and awarded him $61,400 in back
pay, $211,800 in compensatory damages, and $1,500,000 in exemplary damages. The
judge, however, applying statutory limits required by law, reduced the award to
$300,000 in damages, $39,600 in attorney's fees, and about $3,000 in costs.
AutoZone appealed, claiming that the evidence had been legally insufficient to
support the jury's finding that age was a motivating factor in the decision to
What the court said. At trial, it had been Reyes' burden to prove that age had been a motivating
factor in AutoZone's discharge decision. The court decided that Alvarado's
testimony was direct evidence that age had been a motivating factor in the
discharge. It rejected AutoZone's argument that Villareal's reference to "old
people" referred to time or experience as a manager and not to age. "[E]ven
assuming such reference could have carried that connotation; the statements
themselves do not reveal such an alternative meaning, and the jury clearly
found otherwise," the court said.
Noting that the jury was the sole evaluator of the witnesses'
credibility, the court concluded that "the evidence was legally sufficient to
support the jury's finding that Reyes' age was a motivating factor in
AutoZone's decision to terminate him." AutoZone v. Reyes, Texas Court of Appeals at Corpus Christi, No.
Point to remember: A
manager's statement that someone was terminated because of his age is the
equivalent of a smoking gun. Employers should train managers never to refer to
employees' protected classifications when making employment decisions affecting