Laid Off for a “Phony” Reason; Might it Be Discrimination?

Question: For 14 years I worked on my job, and every performance review was excellent. I have always received praise from every colleague I’ve worked with. Just two months ago I received my most recent performance review, and it was very, very good.

Two weeks ago, I was laid off. I was told it was because they needed a “more senior staff person.” Recently, I learned that, instead of hiring a “more senior staff person,” they hired a young, far less experienced person for the job. They gave the new person a different title, but the responsibilities were exactly the same.

I am far older than the person they hired. I am also black, while the person they hired is caucasian. Do I have any legal right to file suit?

Anne, Upper Marlboro, MD

Answer: What you describe seems to be what we call “pretext.” That means “giving a false reason for actions you have taken.” The law of discrimination in most states, and the federal law, too, generally says “When an employer gives a pretext for an employment action they have taken, it is pretty good evidence that the real reason was illegal discrimination.”

A shorter, less wordy way of describing “pretext” is this: “The best evidence of a crime is that someone attempted to cover it up.”

I do believe you probably have good reason to file a suit. But I would strongly suggest you consider doing these three things first, and soon, as there may be legal deadlines approaching:

a. First, without delay, contact your former employer by email. In a respectful letter addressed to both your boss and the company president, tell them that it seems to you that, since they told you they were looking for a “more senior staff person,” and instead replaced you with a “less senior staff person,” and you are older, and she is younger, and you are black and she is caucasian, perhaps this is a case of illegal discrimination. Ask for an explanation – a good one – and ask that it be sent to you by email. Tell them that, if a good explanation is available, surely they can give it to you promptly. If they answer, and what they say, will be of substantial interest.

If you would like to obtain a “model” memo to help you request or negotiate severance [click here].

b. Second, without delay, also contact the State of Maryland Commission on Human Relations, 6 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202, Phone (410) 767-8600, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (often called the “EEOC”), 1801 L Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20507, Phone (202) 663-4900. Ask for the forms to file a discrimination complaint; you might also ask for an appointment to discuss your case with a counselor.

c. Third, consider consulting with an experienced employment discrimination law attorney in your area. They can be found on the internet, or from your local bar association. We can provide you with a few names if you wish. Call, and ask what an initial consultation fee would be.

I’m hoping step “a” might be enough to get your employer to either offer you your job back, or to discuss with you the notion of a settlement of claims. No matter what, you should follow through with steps “b” and “c.”

Employment discrimination is wrong, it is illegal, and it needs to be confronted. There might be some good reason for your employer’s actions. The facts suggest the opposite: that it may be illegal discrimination. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your legal rights. If you don’t take the necessary steps to protect those rights, and your family’s interests, chances are no one else will.

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Al Sklover

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