In Steward v. Sears Roebuck & Co. , Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter noted that the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals had previously determined that an age difference of less than seven years between an employee who was terminated and one who replaced him was not sufficient to prove age discrimination.
Rueter also found that the plaintiff, Gunnar Steward, did not provide sufficient evidence to disprove the reasons Sears offered for his termination.
Steward was 50 years old when he was fired from his position as technical manager at Sears. Prior to his termination, he had received several unfavorable reviews, which cited examples where Steward was unresponsive to customer complaints and failed to meet certain deadlines.
Steward filed a case against Sears under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). He argued that his duties went to three different employees whose average age was more than twelve years less than his at the time he was terminated. A jury ruled for Steward and awarded him almost $93,000 in back pay and front pay of $148,000.
However, Rueter overturned the jury’s decision, noting that Sears argued that a 45-year-old took over most of Steward’s duties. Rueter found that, as well as the 45-year-old, the evidence pointed to a group of people ranging in age from 33 to 60 who took over Steward’s job. This made their average age 6.75 years younger than Steward’s age at the time he was terminated – short of the seven year mark that the 3rd Circuit set.
Rueter’s decision could force the appeals court to revisit the question of how many years would constitute age discrimination.
The court granted Sears’ motion for a new trial.