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If your employer fired you after saying “you are no longer capable of” doing your job “because you are old,” would you consider her statement evidence of age discrimination?

A federal court in Puerto Rico, incredibly, held that no reasonable person could find that this statement showed that the employer fired her employee because of his age.  As such, the Puerto Rico court, using a procedure called “summary judgment,” dismissed the case without letting a jury decide whether age discrimination had occurred.  Today, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston reversed that court’s decision in Soto-Feliciano v. Villa Cofresi Hotels, Inc. et al.

After over a decade of working for the Villa Cofresi Hotel as a chef, the hotel fired Mr. Soto on March 10, 2010.  Less than a month before his termination, Mr. Soto had a meeting with Sandra Caro, the hotel’s head of human resources and member of the family that owned the hotel.  During this meeting, Mr. Soto claims that Ms. Caro said the following to him: “You are no longer capable to work at the line because you are old.  I am going to bring in a new chef.  Maybe I can let you work only in banquets.  You need some long vacations because you are old and slow at the line.  We at the Hotel Villa Cofresi are moving up, not down.”

If Ms. Caro made this statement, a reasonable person could definitely conclude that Ms. Caro factored Mr. Soto’s age into her decision when she made the decision to fire him less than a month later.  However, this statement was not the only evidence of age discrimination that Mr. Soto’s attorney presented to the Puerto Rico federal court.  In addition to Ms. Caro’s statement, Mr. Soto testified that his direct supervisor repeatedly told him that he was “too old” and “too slow.”  Mr. Soto’s attorney also presented evidence that the hotel’s supposed reason for firing Mr. Soto—that he made profane and disrespectful comments to other employees—was just a pretext, or excuse, for discrimination.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals covers federal courts in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico.  As we have previously reported, some federal courts, including one in the First Circuit, have recently expressed their frustration with employers’ attorneys that file summary judgment motions in employment discrimination cases when there is clearly evidence of discrimination.  One of the reasons why defendants file these summary judgment motions, however, is because of cases like this one.  Because some courts will dismiss a case even when there is strong evidence of discrimination, defendants see no harm in rolling the dice in an attempt to get the case dismissed.  Hopefully, decisions like this one from the First Circuit will make that practice less common.