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Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Age Discrimination Verdict but Overturns Punitive Damages Award

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently affirmed a Superior Court jury verdict awarding compensatory damages to a plaintiff who claimed his employer had engaged in age discrimination in violation of state law, but concluded that the evidence was insufficient to establish the sort of “malignant,” “extreme and outrageous” conduct necessary to support the jury’s award of punitive damages.

In Beresford v. Charles River Automotive, LLC, 97 Mass. App. Ct. 1116 (2020) (unpublished), the plaintiff was 61 years old when he was terminated from his job at a school bus fleet garage, where he had worked for over 25 years. Three years before his termination, the business was sold and a new manager took over. Although the employer claimed he was terminated because of performance issues and insubordination, the plaintiff presented evidence that his manager had made a handful of derogatory remarks about his age, such as referring to him as an “old timer.” He had also suggested that another employee’s poor performance was related to his age, and hinted that the company had ways of terminating employees without appearing to be discriminatory. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff, awarding him substantial compensatory damages for back pay and front pay, and then awarding punitive damages which effectively doubled the verdict.

The Appeals Court affirmed the compensatory portion of the verdict, holding that the evidence was sufficient to support the imposition of liability. It held that the plaintiff had proven a prima facie case by establishing (1) that he was older than forty at the relevant times, and thus in a protected class; (2) that he had worked satisfactorily for the garage under prior owners for twenty-five years; (3) that he was fired; and (4) that his duties were assumed by younger workers. Although his employer presented evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for his termination, the Court ruled that, based upon the manager’s alleged statements, the jury could reasonably have concluded that the stated reasons were merely a pretext, and that the plaintiff was actually fired because of his age.

On the issue of punitive damages, however, the Appeals Court ruled that the evidence did not support the jury’s award, and that the trial judge should have granted the defense’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on that portion of the award. Under the Massachusetts employment discrimination statute (M.G.L. c. 151B, § 4), punitive damages may only be awarded for conduct that is “outrageous, because of the defendant's evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” The Appeals Court examined the non-exhaustive list of factors considered in making such a determination, as outlined in prior cases. Those factors include: “(1) ‘whether there was a conscious or purposeful effort to demean or diminish the class of which the plaintiff is a part (or the plaintiff because he or she is a member of the class)’; (2) ‘whether the defendant was aware that the discriminatory conduct would likely cause serious harm, or recklessly disregarded the likelihood that serious harm would arise’; (3) ‘the actual harm to the plaintiff’; (4) ‘the defendant's conduct after learning that the initial conduct would likely cause harm’; and (5) ‘the duration of the wrongful conduct and any concealment of that conduct by the defendant.’” While acknowledging that the manager’s comments and the employer’s actions were indeed wrongful, the Appeals Court concluded that the evidence was insufficient to “present the type of malignant conduct that our courts have recognized as extreme and outrageous.”

Thus, the decision supports the view that even mildly inappropriate and derogatory comments by a supervisor may warrant an inference of discriminatory intent which will be enough to support a verdict against the employer, but more egregious insults or other actions will be necessary to impose punitive damages.