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Employee Case Fails Where Cannot Show Pretext

Michael Flowers, a retired pipefitter and welder, decided to reenter the workforce at age 71. He applied for a pipefitter position at Westrock. In its job description, WestRock identified experience with pipe types and sizes, as well as the ability to read blueprints, in its list of job qualifications. The application did not include a request for the applicant’s date of birth.

WestRock screened Flowers’s application. The human resources employee found him “generally qualified” and forwarded the application to the pipefitting team. The team lead already knew Flowers and felt he had a poor work ethic. The team supervisor asked a friend who previously worked with Flowers for feedback. The friend strongly recommended against hiring Flowers. As a result, WestRock let Flowers know the company would not be hiring him. When Flowers learned Westrock hired a younger, less experienced individual for the job, he sued for violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the case. The appellate court determined that Flowers was not “qualified” for the position, an essential element to pursue an ADEA claim. Flowers admittedly had limited knowledge of pipes and could not read blueprints. As the creator of the position, the employer determines what qualifications are relevant, and there was no evidence to suggest that age considerations played any part in selecting these qualifications. Moreover, Flowers had no evidence to suggest that the negative references WestRock received were a pretext for age bias.