Mandatory retirement is generally unlawful under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. So when an employer urges an employee to retire, isn’t this evidence of age discrimination that an employer should avoid?
Not necessarily, as illustrated by a recent decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Woolsey v. Town of Hillsboro Beach (11th Cir., September 6, 2013).
James Woolsey is a police officer employed by the Town of Hillsboro Beach. In 2008, the town’s Chief of Police promoted Woolsey, who was 49 years-old at the time, to Captain, or second-in-command. But by 2010 Woolsey’s relationship with the Chief soured because Woolsey had implemented certain practices the Chief did not agree with. Woolsey claimed the Chief twice demanded that he retire and was silent when Woolsey asked why. The Chief also provided Woolsey with materials for the Florida Retirement System’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP). Woolsey claimed that the Chief told him that if he did not retire, he “was going to take [him] down in an embarrassing ball of flames.”
That year, the Chief demoted Woolsey from Captain to Patrol Officer. The Chief cited the following reasons for his decision: lack of loyalty, lack of supervisory skills, failure to perform at the level expected of Captain, failure to support the Police Department’s accreditation process, and disagreements about how the Department should have been run.
Woolsey sued the town, claiming that the Chief was motivated by age discrimination. The district court granted the town’s motion for summary judgment, and Woolsey filed an appeal.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The court noted that in support of the Chief’s stated reasons for Woolsey’s demotion, the town submitted multiple letters of counseling/reprimand and performance evaluations issued to Woolsey explaining his specific deficiencies and what needed to be done for him to improve, including a warning of possible demotion or termination if he did not. While Woolsey argued that these were all subjective reasons, the court stated that a subjective reason is legally sufficient as long as the employer “articulates a clear and reasonably specific factual basis upon which it based its subjective opinion.” In fact, Woolsey acknowledged that he had disagreements with the Chief about how the Department should be run. Also of significance was the fact that the Chief had promoted Woolsey just a couple of years earlier when Woolsey was 49 years old. In short, the Eleventh Circuit held that Woolsey’s claim of age discrimination was so weak that the district court was correct in granting summary judgment in the town’s favor.
Interestingly, the court’s opinion attributed no significance to the Chief’s repeated demands that Woolsey retire. In the context of this case, that makes sense. An employer may be aware that an employee is eligible for retirement benefits but be motivated to terminate or demote the employee for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. In that scenario, urging an employee to accept retirement benefits as an alternative to a lawful discharge does not necessarily evidence a discriminatory intent.