The U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Delaware awarded summary judgment to BE&K Engingeering Company, finding that the EEOC had failed to show that a 54-year-old engineer, who was laid off during a reduction in force, was replaced by someone significantly younger.
EEOC argued that in a reduction-in-force situation, the ADEA prima facie case analysis should be relaxed. The Commission contended that the EEOC only needs to show that BE&K retained several significantly younger engineers while terminating a member of the protected class.
“The analysis is not that simple,” Magistrate Judge Mary Pat Thynge wrote, as she rejected EEOC’s argument. She cited a district court decision stating that when considering whether an employer gave preferential treatment to younger employees during a RIF, a court must consider “the terminated employee’s ‘fungibility’ or usefulness to the employer in comparison to other employees.”
Here, the six younger engineers that EEOC cited as “similarly situated” to the terminated engineer were all employed on long-term projects at the time of the RIF, the court emphasized. The EEOC argued that all engineers were expected to perform the same tasks and easily could be swapped between projects. Significantly, the court rejected the contention, finding that it “fails to address the adverse business costs and impact on future projects when senior engineers are placed on jobs that require only entry-level qualifications.”
This case demonstrates the Court’s continued respect for the need of businesses to make decisions based on the economic realities of the workplace.