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First Circuit: Age May Be Just a Number

Discriminatory animus cannot be inferred simply because a 62-year-old employee was replaced by a 36-year-old worker for a new position that was inferior to the plaintiff’s previous job, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, with appellate jurisdiction over the district courts in the District of Maine, District of Massachusetts, District of New Hampshire, District of Puerto Rico, and the District of Rhode Island has ruled.

Wilbur L. Hoffman-Garcia was laid off by Hospital Metropolitano in 2012 after almost two decades of working for the company. At the time of his termination, he served as physical plant director, with duties that included managing the department’s budget, attending meetings with other senior personnel at the hospital, handling maintenance issues, hiring contractors, and maintaining the safety and security of the premises.

Besides Hoffman-Garcia, the hospital laid off all the staff employed in the Physical Plant Department, including Hoffman-Garcia’s deputy, Giovanni Martinez. However, Martinez was hired a few months later for the newly created position of safety officer.

Hoffman-Garcia sued in response, asserting that the rehire of the younger employee constituted age-based discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the hospital, holding that the employer had facially legitimate, nondiscriminatory grounds to close the department and terminate Hoffman-Garcia’s position.

A jury trial was held on the issue of whether the hospital treated age neutrally when it rehired Martinez rather than Hoffman-Garcia. At the close of evidence, the court granted judgment as a matter of law for the employer. The plaintiff appealed to the First Circuit, arguing that a jury question existed as to the hospital’s motivations.

But the federal appellate panel disagreed.

“[H]ere, Hoffman-Garcia plainly failed to meet his burden of showing that his previous position of Physical Plant Director, or a position involving comparable duties and responsibilities at the hospital, was subsequently filled by a younger person, or that he applied for a position and did not get the job because the employer preferred a younger candidate,” the court wrote.

The court highlighted the “fatal and uncontradicted defects” in the plaintiff’s theory of liability. The physical plant director position was eliminated entirely, and the new position paid a fraction of the salary—just $2,183 per month for the safety officer job as compared to $7,432 for the director role.

Hoffman-Garcia himself never applied for the new position, the panel pointed out, and the duties between the two jobs “at best minimally overlapped.” The new role featured no director-level decision-making responsibility, budget oversight or supervision of contractors.

“That Martinez in his new position inherited Hoffman-Garcia’s responsibility for safety issues is not sufficient, for this was but a small portion of Hoffman-Garcia’s duties,” the court wrote. “Nor can discriminatory animus be inferred solely from the subsequent hiring of a younger employee for a position plainly inferior to the plaintiff’s previous position.”

To read the opinion in Hoffman-Garcia v. MetroHealth, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: The First Circuit had little trouble affirming judgment as a matter of law for the employer, finding multiple fatal defects in the plaintiff’s prima facie case, including the fact that he never even applied for the subsequent position, as well as the minimal overlap in duties between his prior job and the new position. The federal appellate panel refused to infer discrimination based simply on the difference between the age of the plaintiff and that of the subsequent rehire.

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