In Sandell v. Taylor-Listug, Inc., an age discrimination case, a California court of appeal reversed the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer, finding that triable issues of fact existed with respect to the employer’s motive for firing the plaintiff.
Robert Sandell (“Sandell”) was hired as Taylor-Listsug, Inc.’s (“Defendant”) senior vice president of sales. Approximately six months into his employment, Sandell suffered a stroke. Four months later, Sandell returned to work full time. During the remainder of his employment, Sandell required a cane to walk, and his speech became noticeably slower. Defendant’s CEO terminated Sandell’s employment a few days after Sandell’s sixtieth birthday, citing displeasure with Sandell’s performance. Sandell brought a claim against Defendant for age discrimination, and the trial court granted summary judgment in Defendant’s favor.
In reversing the lower court’s ruling, the court of appeal held that Sandell had presented sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination. More specifically, he established a prima facie case that he was disabled with evidence that he needed to use a cane and that his speech was impaired as a result of his stroke. The court also found that there was conflicting evidence from which a jury could have concluded that Defendant’s proffered reasons for firing Sandell were unworthy of credence. Additionally, Sandell described two statements by Defendant’s CEO that potentially supported a finding that Defendant acted with an improper motive. The appellate court rejected the trial court’s dismissive conclusion that these were simply “stray” remarks that were of no legal consequence and could be disregarded. Moreover, the timing between Sandell’s hiring and firing (2004 to 2007), even if considered short, did not necessarily create a strong inference that no discriminatory motive existed, given that the effects of Sandell’s stroke caused him to appear older than he may have appeared at the time he was hired. Evidence of discriminatory animus also included testimony that the Defendant’s president said that he would rather fire older people and replace them with newer, younger people because doing so would be cheaper for the company.
This case serves as an important reminder to employers that any negative comment which directly or indirectly references an employee’s age, disability or other protected characteristic could potentially be construed as discriminatory, particularly given that many courts have moved away from applying the “stray remarks doctrine” in employment discrimination cases.
To read the case go to http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/D055549.PDF.