District Court Denies Summary Judgment; Deputies can Sue County Sheriff for Age Discrimination

On September 15, 2014, the Federal Court for the Southern District of Georgia denied summary judgment for the defendant on all but one part of the plaintiffs’ complaint in Dyals et al v. Gregory et al. In this age discrimination case, plaintiffs claim that newly-elected Sheriff Tommy Gregory terminated both plaintiffs Roger Dyals and Dee Grant Porter because of their age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Plaintiffs also allege they were subject to unlawful retaliation when they were not called back to their jobs after filing age discrimination complaints with the EEOC. Dyals also asserts a claim for unpaid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), along with a connected FLSA retaliation claim. The court rejected both of these retaliation claims, but found that the plaintiffs had provided plenty of evidence to support prima facie ADEA and FLSA claims.

The plaintiffs were both deputies in the Camden County Sheriff’s office, Dyals for about nine years and Porter for about six years, until both were laid off on June 29, 2011. Sheriff Gregory justified the layoffs of these two employees by pointing to a reduced department budget, which required him to decrease labor costs, claiming that the budget had decreased by about $600,000 from the previous year.

Section 623(s) of the ADEA states that it is “unlawful for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s age.” A plaintiff may establish a claim of illegal age discrimination by citing either direct or circumstantial evidence. When the evidence is circumstantial, as in this case, the court employs the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework–the plaintiff first establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, then the employer asserts some legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action, then the plaintiff tries to show that this proffered non-discriminatory reason is pretextual and that the real reason for the employer’s action was discriminatory.

The Sherriff’s defense was that the Plaintiffs were “not qualified for their positions” and “have not produced evidence showing that he intended to discriminate.” The Court rejected both of these claims. First, evidence was provided showing that both plaintiffs had received excellent evaluations and reviews, and were regarded as exemplary employees. Second, plaintiffs were able to point to many comments, both direct and indirect, revealing that the Sherriff was clearly motivated to replace older employees with younger ones. Finally, the fact that defendant Gregory hired several people–all younger than the plaintiffs–days before the layoffs, and eighteen more just after, belies his claim to have been responding to a budget shortfall.

It is important when a Court in this situation points out the weakness of the defendant’s stated reasons for having taken the adverse employment actions at issue, because one way that plaintiffs can support their case is by showing “weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, or contradictions’ in the defendant’s proffered explanation.” In this case, the plaintiff seems to have a strong argument that the stated reasons for their termination were pretextual, and the real reasons illegal.

If you believe you have been the subject of age discrimination in violation of the ADEA, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.