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Reeves Versus Sanderson Plumbing

Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing (2000) demonstrates the application of the McDonnell Douglas standard to a case of discharge due to age discrimination.  In the facts of this case, the petitioner, who was 57 years old, was discharged from employment, allegedly for cause due his failure to maintain adequately in his assigned tasks.  Petitioner made a prima facie case that age discrimination existed, but the lower-court judge determined that the defense of the employer of termination for cause was adequate and dismissed the complaint.  The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the petitioner had the right to have his version of the facts heard by the jury.  As a result, it has become far more difficult for an employer to rebut the presumption of discrimination once a prima facie case of discrimination has been established. 

Reeves Versus Sanderson Plumbing

Despite the finding, however, the case affirms that there are a number of narrowly tailored circumstances such as dismissal for cause that can act as an affirmative defense to age discrimination. As a result of the operation of these standards, once the plaintiff has demonstrated that there was age discrimination, it falls to the employer to prove that age is a bona fide and reasonable occupational consideration.  One of the best sources of such evidence for the firm is written and promulgated policies and procedures that the employees are aware of.  By this means, the employer can demonstrate that there was a legitimate business reason for the discharge and it was not motivated solely by age considerations.

The bona fide occupational qualification defense is available only if it is reasonably necessary for the normal operation or essence of the employer’s business.  This is an objective standard that requires a strong showing on the part of the employer as to reasonable necessity.  It requires something more than convenience or simple reasonableness, and generally means a showing that age is somehow related to safety.  A factual showing that substantially all persons over a certain age cannot perform the qualification in a safe manner or that it is highly impractical to treat people on an individualized basis is generally sufficient to establish a bona fide occupational qualification.

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