Welcome to the first of our holiday-themed (at least in title) blog posts. As we approach the holidays at the conclusion of a financially challenging year, cost savings may be on the minds of many healthcare business owners. Healthcare employers may be considering—or have already considered—measures to save money and reduce payroll. 2020 was a difficult year for most businesses, and reducing payroll is an oft-appealing way to reduce expenses. Frequently, a business’s highest paid earners are also among the older employees. That fact prompts a look at the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1975 (“ADEA”) prior to making any employment decisions, such as eliminating positions.
For healthcare employers with 20 or more employees, the ADEA governs and makes it an unlawful employment practice to “discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to [her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623. The regulations create a protected class for individuals who are “40 years or older.” 29 C.F.R. § 1625.2. To be certain, the ADEA and accompanying regulations do not require preferential treatment of employees over 40, and “[f]avoring an older individual over a younger individual because of age is not unlawful discrimination.” Id.
An employee establishes a prima facie case of age discrimination by showing he or she “was (1) a member of the protected age group, (2) subjected to an adverse employment action, (3) qualified to do the job, and (4) replaced by or otherwise lost a position to a younger individual.” Johnson v. Unified Gov’t of Athens-Clarke Cnty., 209 F. Supp. 3d 1335, 1341–42 (M.D. Ga. 2016). The fourth prong, however, is generally not satisfied when it comes to position eliminations because the older employee was not replaced by anyone. See Mazzeo v. Color Resolutions Int’l, LLC, 746 F.2d 1264, 1271 (11th Cir. 2014). The law accounts for this by altering the fourth prong in “reduction in force” cases, requiring the employee to “present sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the employer intended to discriminate on the basis of age through its employment decision.” Zaben v. Air Prods. & Chems., Inc., 129 F.3d 1453, 1459 (11th Cir. 1997). One such “method of establishing a nexus between age discrimination and adverse employment action is by statistical proof of a pattern of discrimination.” Pace v. S. Ry. Sys., 701 F.2d 1383, 1388 (11th Cir. 1983).