Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Fourth Circuit, in age discrimination case, holds that employee must show employer's expectations have been met, not that employee is qualified

A panel for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in an age-discrimination case on January 30. The case, Warch v. Ohio Casualty Ins. Co., involved a claims investigator who was terminated at age 59 following two years of continuous performance problems. The Court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer on the basis that the plaintiff failed to meet his employer's legitimate job expectations. The plaintiff argued that he should only be required to prove that he was "qualified" for the job during the prima facie stage---not that he met his employer's job expectations. The Court rejected this argument noting that once an individual is hired the distinction between qualifications and job expectations tends to blur.

According to the Court if a plaintiff is able to proffer evidence at the prima facie stage that the employer's legitimate job expectations have been met, the employer may counter with evidence defining the expectations as well as evidence that the employee was not meeting those expectations. Although the plaintiff in this case argued that his employer's criticisms were too subjective to be considered at the prima facie stage, the Court disagreed stating that the evidence in the record demonstrated that the employer reprimanded the plaintiff based on concrete, specific observations and accompanied its reprimands with explicit instructions on how to improve. It is also worth noting that although the plaintiff presented some direct evidence of general age-related comments, the Court declined to afford the comments any relevance because they were not directed to the plaintiff and did not directly refer to him.

(contributed by Sandi R. Wilson)

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