Sometimes a court makes a decision so off-the-charts wrong, so at odds with the facts, and so heedless of the governing legal standard, one can only wonder what prejudice or stereotype motivated the court’s thinking. The dismissal of Caryln Johnson’s age discrimination case by a majority of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals is one of those decisions.
Caryln Johnson, born in 1932, joined Securitas Security Services USA as a security officer in 2003. Throughout his seventies Johnson earned a reputation as a dependable employee who never refused a shift. Johnson did not have a regular schedule or post, but was instead offered shifts by field service managers Robert Hesse and Charlie Bunch when they needed someone to fill in for security guards at the sites for which they were responsible. Hesse was impressed by Johnson’s dependability and called him Superman.
Hesse, however, had concerns about Johnson’s advancing age. On several occasions over a three year period Hesse told Johnson he “needed to hang up his Superman cape.” Hesse “also said [that Johnson] was too old to be working.” On one occasion, when Johnson’s wife called Hesse to advise him that her husband was in the hospital, Hesse commented that Johnson “should retire,” “was ‘too old’ to continue working,” and “‘needed to hang up his Superman cape and retire.'” Hesse also compared Johnson to Hesse’s retired father, who was in his 80’s at the time of Johnson’s termination. Hesse told Johnson that Hesse’s father “tried to work, do more than [he] could do.” Hesse testified that he made the comparison to his father in response to Johnson’s acceptance of more work as a utility officer with Securitas. Johnson testified that Hesse “always referenced to his own father who was 86 [and] had to quit [work], and now Bob [Hesse] had to take care of him. He said, ‘You ought to do the same thing. Just drop everything.'” Hesse admitted to telling field service managers, including Bunch, that Johnson “needed to hang up his cape” and that Johnson was “working past his limitations.” Hesse also suggested to other managers that they “prevent [Johnson] from working 50, 60 hours a week.”
So it was until January 25, 2009, when Johnson worked the 4 PM to 8 AM shift at the site of Rail Logistics, one of Securitas’s clients. At about 5:30 AM, Johnson accidentally damaged his patrol vehicle when it came into contact with a stationary semi-trailer. The semi-trailer was not damaged. Johnson’s vehicle was still driveable and Johnson was not hurt. Securitas policy required that accidents be reported as quickly as possible. However, Securitas did not provide cell phones or radios to its security officers, and Johnson did not have access to a telephone at the Rail Logistics site. Johnson tried unsuccessfully to call the office using his own cell phone, but there was no signal.
At about 7 AM, Johnson departed and began driving his vehicle back to the office. He reached Bunch by phone at 7:02 AM and reported the accident. Bunch went to the Rail Logistics site and began preparing an accident report. Bunch spoke with Hesse at this time, and Hesse said that Johnson’s shift went to 8 AM, not 7AM. Hesse told Bunch to contact Sherri Parker in human resources about Johnson’s unauthorized departure from the Rail Logistics site, which was listed in Johnson’s employee handbook as a potentially terminable offense. Hesse called Johnson and told him to expect a call from Parker. Once again, Hesse told Johnson that it was time to hang up his Superman cape and retire. Parker called a short time later, asked Johnson if he was born in 1932, and then fired him for two stated reasons, leaving his shift early and not immediately reporting the accident. Securitas had never before fired another employee for either reason.
The court faced only one question: could a reasonable group of people look at the facts and decide that it was more likely than not that Johnson’s age was a determinative factor in Securitas’s decision to terminate his employment? A nine judge majority comprised of George W. Bush appointees held that the answer was no. Three dissenting judges correctly held otherwise.
It’s difficult to overstate the audacity of the majority’s ruling. The majority literally decided that if a group of eight ordinary people sitting in a jury box took in all the evidence and felt that the scales tipped even slightly in Johnson’s favor, they would be acting outside the bounds of reason. The majority was wrong. A reasonable jury could have ruled in Johnson’s favor based solely on Hesse’s remark that Johnson was too old to be working. It could have decided that Hesse was itching to terminate Johnson because of his age and used the car accident at Rail Logistics as a pretext to do so. To be certain, a jury might also have found in favor of Securitas. But for the majority to hold that to be the only reasonable decision was a gross and impermissible substitution of its own judgment for that of the factfinder.
In addition to the majority’s abjectly incorrect holding, its repeated reference to “the but-for cause” as the standard of causation betrays its political motivation. Every court to consider the issue has held that but-for causation does not mean sole cause. There can be ten but-for causes of a termination and if one of them is age, the employer broke the law. One must also remark on the majority’s use of the phrase “with regards to” and encourage the author of the opinion and those who failed to correct this embarrassing error to revisit their high-school grammar books.