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March 12, 2007
Was Discharge Based on Sexual Harassment or Age?

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 case.

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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 discharge him.

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. 13-03-338-CV (12/29/06).

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 them.

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