For only the second time, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals addressed the merits of the Alabama Age Discrimination in Employment Act (AADEA) in the case of Lambert v. Mazer Discount Home Centers, Inc. In a 30 page opinion, the Court noted that Mr. Lambert had worked for Mazer for 29 years, and at the time of his termination, was vice president of marketing, responsible for purchasing building materials, deal buying and planning and purchasing times for the types of advertising for Mazer products and stores. Mike Mazer took over as president of Mazer in 2005, and spoke with Lambert on more than one occasion about him being away from the office working on a vacation home and a rental home he had in Florida. It also appeared that he was distracted from his work at Mazer due to the extensive renovations the rental home needed. In early 2006, Issues arose concerning Lambert ordering kitchen and bath products improperly. Lambert admitted that Mike Mazer expressed his displeasure over the kitchen and bath problems. Finally, Mike Mazer became increasingly dissatisfied with Lambert's handling of the advertising for Mazer. In May, 2006, when Lambert was 47, he was discharged, refused to accept a severance package, and his job duties were assigned to 3 existing employees, 2 older than him and one younger. Lambert sued Mazer under the AADEA.
In proving an AADEA claim, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. If the plaintiff is successful, the defendant must articulate a nondiscriminatory reason for the employees rejection. The plaintiff must then have an opportunity to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the reason offered by the defendant was a pretext for discrimination.
In order to prove his prima facie case of discrimination, the court held that Lambert was not required to prove that he was replaced by a younger employee. Instead, the plaintiff must prove 1) that he was in a protected group and was adversely affected by an employment decision; 2) that he was qualified to assume another position at the time of discharge; and 3) evidence that supports a reasonable inference of age discrimination. Lambert met the first two elements, but failed to prove an inference of discrimination. Although Lambert offered age-related comments made by Mazer, these comments were not about Lambert or his performance, and therefore failed to support his claim. Furthermore, the fact that one of the three employees who were assigned Lambert's job duties was younger did not amount to substantial evidence demonstrating age discrimination. Lambert's age discrimination claim therefore failed as a matter of law.
Practice pointer. The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals did an excellent job of following federal law applicable to the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which governs the AADEA. As more AADEA claims are filed in state court, I anticipate that more decisions will be rendered by the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals and ultimately the Alabama Supreme Court.