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Martha Knotts v. Grafton City Hospital (April 14, 2016)

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The West Virginia Supreme Court changes the requirements for a prima facie age discrimination case and brings the state in line with the U.S. Supreme Court. Plaintiffs may now be able to establish a prima facie case even if they were replaced with employees who are 40 years or older.

Martha Knotts v. Grafton City Hospital (April 14, 2016)
http://www.courtswv.gov/supreme-court/docs/spring2016/14-0752.pdf 

Justice Antonin Scalia died two months ago but his influence is still being felt - even from opinions he wrote twenty years ago. In 1996, Justice Scalia, acting on behalf of a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court, wrote the opinion in O'Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp., 517 U.S. 308 (1996). He rejected the notion that age discrimination plaintiffs, in absence of direct evidence, must show that they were replaced by someone younger than 40 years old.

Instead of proving that someone outside the protected class replaced them, Justice Scalia said plaintiffs only had to prove that their replacements were "substantially younger." It would not make sense, Justice Scalia noted, to permit a case to go forward that featured a 40-year-old plaintiff who was replaced by a 39-year-old worker, but to dismiss a case that featured a 56-year-old plaintiff who was replaced by a 40-year-old worker. The key in a federal age discrimination case is on whether plaintiffs can show they were discriminated against "because of" their age, not on whether their replacements are under 40.

The West Virginia Supreme Court took advantage of the Knotts case to follow Justice Scalia's lead and to adopt the "substantially younger" requirement for cases brought pursuant to the West Virginia Human Rights Act. The plaintiff in Knotts was a 65-year old housekeeper who worked at a hospital. She was fired after allegedly violating the hospital's patient confidentiality rules. Shortly after her termination, the hospital hired housekeepers who were 41 and 53 years old.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the hospital, reasoning that the plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case because both of the new housekeepers were over 40 years old and thus were in the same protected class as plaintiff. The West Virginia Supreme Court adopted Judge Scalia's reasoning: "The focus of a court's inquiry should be on whether the replacement or comparison employee was 'substantially younger' than the plaintiff, not on whether the replacement or comparison employee was outside of the plaintiff's protected class, i.e., age forty or above." The Court declined to give any bright-line guidance as to what "substantially younger" means, but indicated that an age gap of "ten or more years" will generally be considered "sufficiently substantial" to satisfy the rule. The case was remanded to the trial court to consider whether the plaintiff could establish a prima facie case using the new rule. 

Steven L. Snyder practices labor and employment law at Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC and is a trained arbitrator and mediator.

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