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Sixth Circuit Revives Age Discrimination Claim Against Hewlett Packard

In 2011, Hewlett-Packard (HP) hired Robert Sloat to develop training programs for its salespeople. Over the next five years, he received positive performance reviews, and HP used his training program worldwide. HP transferred Sloat’s position to a different group, reporting to a different manager in 2016. Sloat was 60 years old at the time of the transfer. In their first phone call, his new manager, Steven Hagler, said he did not know what would happen to Sloat or his training program. During the first team meeting, Hagler did not assign Sloat any responsibilities. When Hagler asked for volunteers for a different project, Sloat volunteered, taking on new tasks. The team ultimately decided to use Sloat’s training program, but Hagler changed its name and designated another employee to lead it. Hagler started calling Sloat “Uncle Ron” and laughed when other employees did the same. Hagler allegedly referred to Sloat sarcastically as “young man.” When Sloat had an issue during a presentation, Hagler said, “You’ve got old skills.” Sloat also alleged that on at least 10 occasions, Hagler asked him when he was going to retire. Sloat complained to Human Resources that Hagler was discriminating against him based on his age. HR told him to speak to Hagler, which he did. Hagler became angry and soon after reassigned Sloat’s responsibilities. He also asked HR to reassign Sloat to a different department. In 2017, Hagler recommended HP fire Sloat because his position was redundant. He gave Sloat a poor performance review. When HP decided to break up Hagler’s team and terminate some of its members, Hagler recommended to the vice-president that HP terminate Sloat.

Sloat appealed the dismissal of his age discrimination case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Sloat had to show the court that age had “a determinative influence on the outcome of the employer’s decision-making process.” The court focused on whether HP’s proffered reason for termination could be a pretext for age discrimination. Based on the facts, a jury could infer that Hagler prejudged Sloat’s capabilities, believing he was too old for the job. Hagler’s comments in conjunction with his decision to give Sloat an insignificant bonus, his choice not to assign him any responsibilities, and his attempts to eliminate Sloat’s position could support an inference of age discrimination. The vice-president designated Sloat for termination after speaking with Hagler. A jury will decide whether Hagler’s actions were motivated by age and/or retaliation for his complaints of age discrimination.