By Weatherington, Richard
Art Business News , Vol. 27, No. 8
When the U.S. Supreme Court speaks on employment issues, art dealers know it is time to listen. But this time, not only did the Supreme Court speak unanimously, its most recent ruling concerning workplace discrimination was loud and clear: If an art dealer lies about the reason for terminating an employee to cover up discrimination, it will be much easier in the future for the employee to win.
With the number of discrimination lawsuits tripling in the past eight years, art dealers can expect the reason they provide for termination to undergo even greater scrutiny. While the Supreme Court's ruling involved age discrimination, the principles expressed in the decision could be applied equally to other areas of discrimination, such as sex or race.
The case involved a 57-year-old supervisor whose duties included recording attendance and hours worked by his employees. His boss was a 45-year-old manager who complained that production was down because employees were often absent, late or left early. An audit was conducted and the supervisor was fired after 40 years on the job.
The supervisor filed suit for age discrimination. At trial, the company said he was fired for failure to maintain accurate attendance records. The supervisor claimed that reason was merely a pretext for age discrimination and introduced evidence that he had accurately recorded the attendance and hours. He then produced evidence that the department manager, who wielded "absolute power," was motivated by an age-based animus towards him and was principally responsible for his firing. The jury ruled in favor of the supervisor.
However, on appeal the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgement. When the case came before the United States Supreme Court, however, things changed in a big way. The Supreme Court determined that the Appeals Court wrongly adopted the premise that the employee must always introduce additional independent evidence of discrimination. It said that when an employee makes a case of discrimination and combines that with sufficient evidence showing that the employer's non-discriminatory reason for the firing was false, the courts may find that combination to be adequate to uphold a claim of liability for age discrimination.
What The Case Means for You
Once a case is established, the burden shifts to the company to produce evidence that someone else was preferred for a legitimate non-discriminatory reason. Once the employer produces sufficient evidence to support a non-discriminatory reason for its decision, the employee must be given an opportunity to prove that the stated legitimate reasons offered by the company were not the real reasons but were a pretext for discrimination. …