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Age Discrimination under Massachusetts and Federal Law

Employees are protected from age discrimination by both Massachusetts law and the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The First Circuit recently decided a case involving both in Santangelo v. New York Life Insurance Company. The plaintiff had been anagent with a life insurance company for over forty years before he was terminated in 2009. According to the court's opinion, he began having problems with his job in 2006 after a file audit found two incomplete forms that had been signed by his clients in violation of company policy. The company formally reprimanded him by letter because of the violation. Another audit the following year identified the same issue and resulted in a severe reprimand letter and "Enhanced Supervision." Another audit in 2008, revealed more incomplete signed forms. A Standards Consultant then recommended termination of the plaintiff's contract.

Human Resources sent the plaintiff a letter in April, 2009, that mentioned his retirement on May 1. When he questioned it, he received a fax stating that the company would terminate his contract as of May 1, 2009. He was then denied access to his rented office space and to the company's computer network on April 7.

In December, 2009, the plaintiff filed a discrimination charge with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ("MCAD"), claiming that he had been fired because of his age. In February, 2012, MCAD made a finding of no probable cause for further investigation. MCAD then denied the plaintiff's appeal in May, 2013. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") adopted the state agency's findings in October of 2013.

In March, 2012, the plaintiff filed suit in state court alleging several contract and common law claims. The insurance company removed the case to federal court on diversity grounds and filed a motion for summary judgment. In January, 2014, the plaintiff filed an age discrimination claim in the U.S. District Court and the court consolidated the cases. The District Court ultimately granted the defendant's summary judgment motion on all claims. The plaintiff appealed.

The District Court found that the plaintiff had not been an employee as required under both the state and federal age discrimination statutes, but was instead an independent contractor. The Circuit Court found that the state law discrimination claim failed even if he had been an employee because the statute of limitations had expired before suit was filed. Pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B, ยง 9. an age discrimination action must be filed within three years from the occurrence of the unlawful practice. The plaintiff's suit was filed more than four years after his termination. The plaintiff argued that the statute of limitations began to run when he knew or should have known that he had been harmed, and that did not occur until MCAD denied his charge. The Circuit Court disagreeing, noting that the plaintiff had sufficient knowledge to file the MCAD charge in 2009. Furthermore, he did not indicate what additional information the MCAD denial provided. The Circuit Court found the state law discrimination claim was barred by the statute of limitations.

Under federal law, however, the plaintiff had 90 days to file suit after the EEOC's denial of the administrative claim. He filed suit within that timeframe, so the court considered his federal claim. The Circuit Court examined the federal discrimination claim according to the McDonnell Douglas framework. The court assumed that the plaintiff met the first step, requiring that he make a prima facie case of age discrimination, by showing he was at least 40 years old, that he was qualified for the job, that he was fired, and that the employer later filled the position.

The court also found that the defendant met the second prong by showing that it had a "legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for firing the plaintiff. Specifically, the defendant had shown that the plaintiff repeatedly violated a company rule. The plaintiff did not deny violating the policy or that the company had escalated disciplinary action because of the violations.

The plaintiff then had the burden of showing that the purported reason for his termination was a pretext. To do so, he must provide specific facts that would allow a jury to find that the given reason was designed to cover up a motivation of age discrimination. The plaintiff did provide some facts that he argued called into question whether the defendant had actually terminated him for violating the rules, but none of that evidence could support a determination that it had fired him because of his age.

The plaintiff alleged that the company hired many younger agents who did not have his level of experience, but he did not offer evidence that any of the agents had specifically been hired as his replacement. The plaintiff argued that agents commonly had incomplete signed forms on file, but he did not provide any evidence that the other agents he claimed were treated differently were younger than he was. The Circuit Court found that there was insufficient evidence for a rational jury to conclude that the stated reason for the termination was a pretext for age discrimination. The Circuit Court affirmed the summary judgment for the federal age discrimination claim.

Furthermore, the court found insufficient evidence to support a finding that the defendant had been terminated to prevent him from receiving certain retirement benefits. It also found insufficient evidence to support his breach of contract and common law claims. The Circuit Court therefore affirmed the District Court's judgment.

If you have a legal issue involving discrimination, an experienced Boston employment discrimination attorney can help you. Call the Law Offices of Richard Mucci at (781) 729-3999 to set up an appointment.

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