Long-standing and consistently applied policy, coupled with clear and objective documentation of the employer’s financial status form the basis of a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the dismissal of an employee’s age discrimination claim. Green v. Twp. Of Addison, 6th Cir., No. 14-1607, unpublished (May 27, 2015).
Linda Green, hired by Addison Township (Michigan) in 1999 as a fire department clerk, was serving as the department’s Office Manager and only clerical employee in 2010 when the township finances began to decline.
In light of those declining finances, coupled with an increase in the number of fire-and-rescue calls, the township’s Fire Chief decided to eliminate Green’s clerical position and create a hybrid “firefighter/EMT/office manager” position. That employee would be expected to perform clerical tasks, but also go on daytime fire-and-rescue runs. The hybrid position required applicants to possess Michigan Fire Fighter’s Training Council Firefighter II certification and Michigan EMT-B certification.
Once the hybrid position was approved by the fire department and township boards, the Chief offered the position to Green who, at the time, was 55 years old. Because Green lacked the required certifications, the Chief offered to send Green to training programs, using township funds. However, as a pre-requisite, Green would have to complete – as all other novice fire fighter candidates did – a 7-stage agility test.
Green attempted the agility-test requirements, but was unable to complete that testing. In fact, she quit the testing when she was unable to complete the first of the seven steps. Her employment was terminated three days later. The hybrid position ultimately was filled by a 29 year old female firefighter who performed all of the department’s clerical tasks, while answering daytime 911 calls and going on daytime fire-and-rescue runs.
Green ultimately filed a lawsuit, alleging that the reason for her firing was age, and that the testing issue was simply a pretext for discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment in the township’s favor. That decision was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit.
In order to have succeeded in her claims, Green would have had to show that the township did not honestly believe that its economic issues required a reduction in payroll or a consolidation of positions. However, in the court’s words, the record “exhaustively details the township’s deteriorating finances.” Therefore, Green could not present evidence that economic necessity did not actually motivate the township to create the consolidated daytime position.
In addition, Green alleged that the township did not believe that she could perform firefighting tasks at age 55 and therefore forced her to take a test that we would be certain to fail. However, Green was unable to refute evidence showing that the Chief required all novice firefighter candidates to pass the agility test before the township would pay for firefighter training. That pre-test was necessary, according to the Chief, as candidates who could not complete the agility test would likely be unsuccessful in firefighter testing, causing the township to “waste [its] money.”
Green was unsuccessful in this case because the township treated Green as it treated every other candidate for the consolidated position, and because there was clear documentation of the financial difficulties suffered by the township. The take-away from this case is clear: consistently applied processes and procedures, coupled with complete and objective documentation, effectively work to avoid legal risk.