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McNeil v. Econs. Lab. - 800 F.2d 111 (7th Cir. 1986)

Rule:

Although reinstatement is usually the preferred remedy for a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C.S. § 621 et seq., reinstatement is not always appropriate. For example, there may be no position available or the employer-employee relationship may be pervaded by hostility. When reinstatement is infeasible or inappropriate, front pay may be appropriate to make the plaintiff whole. In determining whether to award front pay, courts should consider all of the circumstances of the case. Front pay may be indicated especially when the plaintiff has no reasonable prospect of obtaining comparable employment or when the time period for which front pay is to be awarded is relatively short. On the other hand, front pay may be less appropriate when liquidated damages are awarded. Of course, the duty to mitigate damages may limit the amount of front pay available. 

Facts:

Plaintiff John McNeil, a sales manager, brought an action in federal district court against his employer, defendant Economics Laboratory, Inc., for his discharge from employment pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"). McNeil's discharge was a result of the need for the employer to reduce expenses as part of a corporation-wide expense reduction effort. Although others whose positions were eliminated were offered other positions, McNeil was not. The employer argued that, although positions were available in chemical sales, McNeil was not offered one because the friction that he had previously created made such a position inappropriate for him. McNeil, however, was offered a nonsalaried, commission-based position as a sales representative. At trial, there was some evidence of friction between McNeil and his co-workers, but the district court found that his personnel file contained only favorable performance appraisals. The district court, in a bench trial, granted judgment for McNeil in the amount of $88,000, plus costs and attorney's fees, holding that McNeil was wrongfully discharged. The employer appealed. McNeil cross appealed, alleging that the district court erred by concluding that the violation was not willful and abused its discretion by refusing to award front pay.

Issue:

Was the district court's ruling proper?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court affirmed a judgment that defendant employer's discharge of plaintiff employee violated the ADEA. McNeil was removed from a sales manager position and offered a non-salaried, commission-based position as a sales representative. The district court's conclusion that defendant's proffered reason for failing to offer a commensurate position was pretextual, and such conclusion was not clearly erroneous because McNeil's alleged misconduct occurred well in the past and was not included in McNeil's performance evaluations. The court also held there was sufficient evidence, based on statements by a supervisor, supporting an inference of defendant's intent to discriminate based on age. The court rejected McNeil's assertions on cross appeal that he was entitled to liquidated damages and front pay. It was not clearly erroneous for the district court to find that violation of the ADEA was not willful, a prerequisite for liquidated damages under 29 U.S.C.S. § 626(b). The court also held that it was not an abuse of discretion to decline to award front pay until age seventy based on the evidence presented at trial.

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