NJ Labor And Employment Law

The New Jersey Labor and Employment Law Blog is authored by Jay S. Becker and Joseph C. DeBlasio, shareholders in the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group, with support from the associates in the Group. It is dedicated to provide news and updates regarding all labor and employment matters throughout New Jersey.

New Jersey Court Clarifies Heightened Burden For Employees Claiming Age Discrimination

January 11, 2010 | No Comments
Posted by admin

Until recently, employees claiming discriminatory discharge on the basis of age generally were able to establish a prima facie case of discrimination simply because they were replaced by a “sufficiently younger” person, or because (in the case of a job elimination) their duties were absorbed by younger co-workers.  This often made it difficult for employers to obtain dismissal of these claims prior to trial.  This also made some personnel decisions more complicated and risky, even when motivated by legitimate business considerations such as performance or productivity.  On January 4, 2010, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court in Winkel v. Spencer Gifts, LLC declared that even when employees claiming age discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination could show they were replaced by sufficiently younger workers, they still must demonstrate to the court additional evidence that the employee’s age was a motivating factor before a prima facie case of age discrimination can be established.  This important decision not only changes the current litigation landscape, but it also may change how employers view the risks associated with their decisions to discharge older workers.

The court in Winkel correctly explained the existing law, that to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination in the context of an alleged wrongful discharge because of age, a plaintiff must be able to prove each of the following four elements:  1. he/she was a member of a protected class;  2. he/she was performing the job at a satisfactory level;  3. he/she was discharged; and  4. the discharge took place under circumstances that give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.  The court clarified, however,  that “the simple distribution of a terminated employee’s work among existing employees, who may be younger, by itself, does not rise to the level of a prima facie showing that the discharge was because of age, and thus unlawful.”  The court continued, “even if it were [true that the terminated employee’s work was distributed to younger co-workers], that fact must be coupled with other circumstances to establish an inference of a discriminatory animus.”  “There must be some showing that the prohibited consideration of age played a role in the employment decision.”  The court found plaintiff had failed to demonstrate evidence from which a discriminatory animus could be found; and therefore, dismissal of plaintiff’s age discrimination claim prior to trial was affirmed.

Employers may take from this decision that courts in New Jersey must not permit claims of wrongful discharge on the basis of age to survive an employer’s motion for summary judgment without sufficient direct or circumstantial proof that the employee’s age motivated the discharge decision.  Simply pointing out that the replacement worker is “sufficiently younger” is no longer enough to satisfy this threshold requirement.


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