This company tried to win an age bias suit on a technicality after a CEO called a worker “old and ugly.” Here’s why it didn’t work.
In September of 2010, Kanbar Property Management laid off seven employees, but property manager Toni Strength, 53, was spared — for one day.
The next day, Sukhi Ghuman, the CEO of the company, fired Strength, saying Strength’s position had also been eliminated.
Strength then went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which filed an age discrimination claim against the company on her behalf.
During its investigation, the EEOC obtained testimony from three Kanbar employees that pointed to some potentially damning evidence against the company and Ghuman:
- One employee claimed that Ghuman said he fired Strength because Strength was “older and he (Ghuman) did not believe she had the ability to meet potential tenants and entertain existing tenants after work.”
- The same employee noted that Ghuman said he wanted someone younger and prettier for the position.
- Two other employees claimed that Ghuman told them that he fired Strength because she was “old and ugly” and that he added, “Who would want to lease from her?”
But was it age bias under the law?
Seems like a cut and dried age bias case, no? Kanbar didn’t think so.
A little background: A 2009 Supreme Court decision ruled that employees claiming age bias under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) have to prove that the fact they were over 40 was the sole cause of the adverse action taken against them. If age is only one of several factors, it’s a “mixed motive” case and an age bias claim can’t stand.
That’s the argument Kanbar made for its innocence, as relayed by P. Andrew Torrez, writing on the Suits by Suits blog:
Does repeatedly calling an employee “old and ugly” constitute a “mixed motive”? That’s exactly what the defendant, Kanbar Property Management, argued in its summary judgment motion, arguing that the statements reflected both ageism (which is prohibited by the ADEA) and “lookism,” which is not. Because the employee was terminated for both reasons, Kanbar argued, she couldn’t prove that the prohibited age discrimination was the “but-for” cause of her termination.
Not a bad try, said the court. But in the end, there were enough questions about Strength’s termination to send the case to a jury:
… a reasonable jury could find Ghuman’s statement that Strength was “old and ugly” to be two sides of the same coin — both being attributable to her age. Moreover, the statements directly demonstrate discriminatory motivation on the part of Ghuman and a direct nexus between that motivation and Ghuman’s decision to terminate Strength’s employment. A reasonable jury could certainly find that age was the but-for cause of Ghuman’s termination decision with respect to Strength. Accordingly, the EEOC has met its burden of coming forth with direct evidence of discrimination sufficient to preclude summary judgment as to its ADEA claim.
Doesn’t look like the case will make it that far anyway — Kanbar just settled the case with Strength for $140,000. The company will also “update its anti-discrimination policies to recognize the importance of older employees in the workforce and furnish companywide ADEA training for all of its management personnel with hiring and firing authority, as part of the settlement.”
The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Kanbar Property Management, LLC.