Single Ageist Comment May Be Insufficient to Sustain Age Discrimination Claim

Q.  If a supervisor makes a comment about an employee’s age, will the company be liable for age discrimination?

A.  While ageist comments are never appropriate in the workplace, an Illinois federal court recently ruled that a single age-related comment was insufficient for an employee to prevail on an age discrimination claim.

In Maglieri v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 16-cv-7033 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 14, 2018), the plaintiff employee alleged, among other claims, discrimination and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). The 54-year old plaintiff worked in a Costco bakery and was directly supervised by a 57-year old manager. According to the plaintiff, the manager repeatedly yelled at her in a “nasty” and “intimidating” voice about working faster. But according to a co-worker, the manager was mean and abrasive to all subordinates and would sometimes yell to motivate employees. The co-worker also testified, however, that she once recalled the manager stating she was “kind of surprised that [Costco] didn’t hire someone younger” when plaintiff was hired. All of the plaintiff’s performance reviews reflected the manager’s concerns with plaintiff’s work speed.  However, plaintiff was not terminated or demoted and did not otherwise experience a change in her job duties.

The ADEA protects employees age 40 and above from age-based discrimination in the workplace. Employers may not discriminate against employees in any manner on the basis of age, and employers may not retaliate against employees who oppose any practices made unlawful by the ADEA. The plaintiff in this case alleged that she was the victim of both discrimination and retaliation.

In order to prove an age discrimination claim, plaintiff needed to show that her employer subjected her to an adverse employment action (such as termination, change in job duties, or a hostile work environment) because of her age. As the Court noted, “not everything that makes an employee unhappy is an actionable adverse action.” Although the manager’s yelling and alleged abrasiveness could present a Human Resources problem, merely being mean or raising one’s voice does not constitute a violation of the law.

The Court observed that plaintiff did not suffer termination or a change in job duties and also concluded that plaintiff was not the victim of an age-based hostile environment. According to the Court, it is not enough that an employee subjectively believes an employer’s conduct to be discriminatory. To prevail on a hostile environment claim, a plaintiff must show that the complained of behavior was both subjectively and objectively offensive. The evidence in this case showed that there was only one comment about age (the manager’s comment that she was surprised Costco did not hire someone younger). The Court found that “this sole age-based comment, which was not directed at [plaintiff] and did not contain any prejudiced views or derogatory slurs, is not enough to establish that [the manager] harassed [plaintiff] . . . because of [her] age.”

The Court concluded that the manager’s criticism about “slowness” and “lack of urgency,” were not a veiled way of harassing plaintiff about her age. While the ADEA prohibits employers from relying on age as a proxy for an employee’s work-related characteristics—such as productivity—the ADEA does not bar employers from focusing on the work-related characteristics themselves. According to the Court:  “Not completing work quickly enough is a legitimate workplace criticism.”

Employers should be aware that a single comment that is discriminatory on its face, such as a racial slur, could be sufficient to establish a hostile work environment.  In fact, courts have concluded that such singular comments are sufficient to bring a claim under various state and federal employment discrimination laws.

Although the employer in the above-referenced case managed to avoid liability, all employers would be well-served to conduct non-discrimination and anti-harassment training in the workplace that focuses not only on age-based discrimination and harassment but also on other forms of harassment based on sex, race, disability, and other protected traits. Pepper Hamilton’s Labor and Employment Practice Group can conduct anti-harassment training sessions for both your managers/supervisors and rank and file employees. Contact a Pepper Hamilton Labor and Employment attorney to discuss how we can tailor a training program to the needs of your workforce.

Lee Tankle