There was a seven year age difference between the 27-year veteran of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and the man who replaced him after he was fired in 2013.
Is that age difference significant enough to raise an inference of age discrimination? Yes, says a federal appeals court based in Atlanta.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in December reinstated an age discrimination lawsuit filed by Robert Liebman, the 49-year-old managing director of the MetLife’s West Palm Beach and Boca Raton offices who was fired in 2013 for “poor performance” in a cost-cutting move. Liebman was replaced by Neil Weiss, 42, whom Liebman hired as a salesperson in 2007.
Not only did Liebman lose his job but he lost about $90,000 per year in pension benefits that were scheduled to vest at age 55 and begin at age 60. Liebman was one of MetLife’s highest paid managing sales directors.
U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks of Florida cited several grounds (all reversed by the appeals court) in granting MetLife’s pretrail motion to dismiss Liebman’s lawsuit alleging age discrimination and a violation of ERISA, the federal law governing pensions.
Judge Middlebrooks found it significant that Liebman’s replacement, Weiss, was a member of the class of workers aged 40 and above who are protected under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). Moreover, he said Liebman failed to prove he was qualified for his position and was performing as expected.
The appellate panel ruled the “proper inquiry” is not whether Liebman’s replacement was within the ADEA’s protected class but whether he was “substantially younger” than Liebman. The appeals court said the seven-year age difference between Liebman and Weiss “qualified as substantially younger.”
Moreover, the appeals court panel scoffed at the notion that Liebman, who had performed the duties of managing director for nine years, had failed to show he was qualified for his position. “Nine years in the same position, and nearly three decades at the company, is long enough to support the inference that he was qualified for his job,” said the appeals court, which also noted that Liebman had received many leadership awards from MetLife.
After Liebman began reporting to a new manager, Larry Adkins, in 2007, his work was criticized and he was placed on a performance plan. He was informed his job was being eliminated in 2012 because MetLife needed to reduce salary expenses and that some of his responsibilities were duplicative of Weiss “who cost less and had a better performance evaluation.” Moreover, Liebman was criticized for being “detached” and “ineffective” despite warnings.
The appeals court also held that MetLife’s justifications for terminating Liebman were “not a proper basis” for dismissing the lawsuit because “employer justifications become relevant only after the plaintiff has made his prima facie case.”
Finally, the appeals court criticized the lower court’s dismissal of Liebman’s claim that MetLife had violated ERISA, a federal law regulating pensions. The appeals court said Liebman raised an “inference of discrimination” when he presented evidence that Adkins was jealous of Liebman’s superior pension benefits.
The case is Liebman v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., No. 14-13197 (11th Cir. Dec. 18, 2015).