Navigating the Legal Minefield: Lessons from a Recent Massachusetts Appeals Court Decision on Age Discrimination

In the ever-evolving landscape of employment law, a recent Massachusetts Appeals Court decision, Downey vs. Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER), provides valuable insights for employers and management-side employment attorneys. This case underscores the importance of a fair and transparent hiring process, and the potential dangers of age discrimination.

In this case, William T. Downey, a 63-year-old job applicant, sued DOER for age discrimination under G. L. c. 151B after he was not granted an interview for a position he applied for. The Appeals Court reversed the Superior Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of DOER, citing a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether DOER’s reasons for not offering Downey an interview were pretextual. Key factors in the court’s decision were discrepancies in DOER’s explanations for why it declined to offer Downey an interview and its failure to follow established hiring guidelines for Massachusetts executive agencies.

Key Takeaways for Employers and Management-Side Employment Attorneys

Avoid Age Discrimination: Age discrimination is a serious issue that can lead to significant legal repercussions. Individuals aged 40 and older are considered members of a protected class and can pursue age discrimination claims under the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Massachusetts’ anti-discrimination statute, Chapter 151B. To avoid claims of age discrimination in the hiring context, employers should ensure that their hiring processes are free from age bias and that all applicants are evaluated based on their qualifications and experience.

Ensure Transparency in the Hiring Process: DOER’s varying explanations for not interviewing Downey were found to be potentially pretextual. Employers should be transparent and consistent in their hiring processes, providing clear and non-discriminatory reasons for their hiring decisions.

Ensure Job Requirements are Clear and Consistent: The court found substantive differences between the job requirements in the public job posting and DOER’s various descriptions of the job requirements during the litigation. Employers should ensure that job requirements are clear, consistent, and non-discriminatory.

Adhere to Established Hiring Procedures: DOER’s failure to follow established Massachusetts State agency hiring procedures suggested that its reason for not offering Downey an interview was pretextual. Employers should adhere to established hiring procedures and guidelines to avoid potential discrimination claims.

Employ best practices:

  • Develop a thorough job description that objectively outlines the job expectations
  • Apply consistent criteria to all applicants
  • Establish standard interview questions in advance and ensure that the questions are related to the job description
  • Avoid small talk and questions unrelated to the job; such questions create a risk of encroaching upon impermissible areas (e.g., What year did you graduate from college? Do you have children? Are they grown?)
  • Retain documentation from the hiring and interview process
  • Train anyone who will be interacting with a job applicant on hiring procedures and best practices

This case serves as a reminder of the importance of fair and transparent hiring practices. Employers and management-side employment attorneys should take note of these lessons to avoid legal claims and ensure a discrimination-free workplace.