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First Circuit reverses trial court’s decision to toss case of ageist harassment, retaliation, and constructive discharge

Earlier this month, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals held that a trial court in Puerto Rico erred when it determined that a worker failed to present sufficient evidence to support her claims of ageist harassment and retaliation.  The trial court had thrown the worker’s case out because the trial judge did not think a jury could reasonably find that the company had violated the worker’s rights.  The First Circuit found that the trial court inappropriately prevented this case from going to trial.

The worker presented evidence to the trial court that her managers called her “vieja,” which means old in Spanish; “useless;” “worthless;” that she should apply for social security; and that she should quit because she was so old.  She told the trial court that this happened on a daily, or near daily, basis for over a year.  The trial court held that the worker failed to present specific enough information for a jury to find in her favor because she did not provide specific information about each instance during the period she was harassed, such as which person made comments on each particular date.  The First Circuit rejected the trial court’s reasoning, holding that it “would be unreasonable to expect the average worker in an allegedly perpetually abusive environment to keep track of her abuse to that degree of detail.”

The First Circuit also reversed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the worker’s claims of retaliation and “constructive discharge.”  After the worker complained to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a similar agency in Puerto Rico about the harassment, one of the company’s owners began to threaten to fire her because she had filed her complaint.  The worker said that these threats occurred on almost a daily basis.  She wound up taking medical leave because of the depression and anxiety these threats caused.  When she returned, the threats continued until she eventually quit.

A “constructive discharge” occurs when an employee is compelled to resign due to unlawful discrimination or harassment that no reasonable employee would continue to endure.  In this case, the First Circuit held that a jury could reasonably determine that the company constructively discharged the worker because one of the owners repeatedly threatened to fire her.  According to the First Circuit, it “is not unreasonable to expect that an employee will resign due to the apparent inevitability of her termination when that employee is told over and over (and over) again that she will be fired.”

The company did not experience a total loss at the First Circuit.  The First Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the worker’s sex discrimination and harassment claims.

This case illustrates how difficult harassment cases can be.  Some courts, like the trial court in this case, impose very high barriers for victims seeking to hold their employers accountable.  That is why victims should retain attorneys experienced in this area of the law to help them.  The Maine Employee Rights Group has decades of experience fighting age discrimination and retaliation.  If you have experienced age discrimination or retaliation, contact us for a free case evaluation.