Washington’s Supreme Court recently ruled that even if an employer had a legitimate reason for terminating an employee, the employee can still prevail in a discrimination lawsuit if discrimination played a substantial factor in motivating the employer. The court also ruled that a decision maker’s general comments in a public speech about a need to attract younger workers could be used to infer discriminatory intent. This decision makes it easier for employees to survive motions to dismiss their cases, and may result in more lawsuits by employees. Employers should consider contacting an attorney whenever terminating an employee.
In Scrivener v. Clark College (decided by Washington’s Supreme Court on September 18, 2014), a 55 year old employee applied for a tenured-tracked teaching position. The college had multiple qualified applicants, and ultimately choose a younger applicant. The committee that observed the older employee’s teaching noted several deficiencies. Around the same time, the college president gave a public speech regarding the “glaring need” for younger talent and the loosening of experience requirements. The older employee also alleged the college hired a disproportionate number of younger employees and made other statements (such as referring to The Daily Show) that implied the college preferred younger employees.
The court ruled that the employee could prove discrimination by showing that discrimination was a substantial motivating factor in the decision even if the employer had legitimate, undisputed, nondiscriminatory reasons for the decision.
The court also rejected the stray remarks doctrine, and ruled that the president’s public speech could be used to infer discriminatory intent. The stray remarks doctrine holds that remarks decision-makers make outside the decision-making process are deemed stray and irrelevant.
If you have additional questions or are experiencing any employment issues, please contact Luke Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-682-7090.