Claims for unlawful workplace discrimination are typically proven through two types of evidence: direct and circumstantial. Direct evidence is often referred to as “smoking gun” evidence where, for example, a company informs an employee that he or she is being terminated because of his or her age. Circumstantial evidence is much more subtle. As a great trial lawyer once said, “We better know there is a fire whence we see much smoke rising than we could know it by one or two witnesses swearing to it. The witnesses may commit perjury, but the smoke cannot.” Abraham Lincoln, Unsent Letter to J.R. Underwood and Henry Grider, October 26, 1864. Thus, in an age discrimination case, circumstantial evidence may take the form of an older employee (who is at least 40 years old) who is terminated without explanation.
This brings us to the case of Vélez v. Thermo King de Puerto Rico. There, the employer terminated a 56 year old employee without explanation. The company finally provided a reason for the termination after the employee filed a claim for age discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The employer changed its reason thereafter. The First Circuit found the employer’s initial silence to constitute circumstantial evidence of discrimination:
Thermo King did not initially provide Vélez with any reason for firing him. One month later, Soto told the ADU and the EEOC that Vélez had been fired for violating the company’s policy on receiving gifts from suppliers. It was not until over a year later that Thermo King, responding to this lawsuit, first said that Vélez had been fired for stealing and selling company property. The fact that the employer gave different reasons at different times for its action surely supports a finding that the reason it ultimately settled on was fabricated.
In my interview with Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, I discussed the significance of the Thermo King decision:
It appears to be the first time the 1st Circuit has held that an employer’s failure to articulate the reasons for a termination before litigation equals pretext for discrimination.
Our prediction is that the Thermo King decision will encourage more transparency. Employers are now incentivized to articulate a clear reason as to why an employee is being terminated from the outset or risk an inference of discriminatory motive.