In a discrimination case it is very important to determine whether the plaintiff is alleging direct or circumstantial evidence of discrimination. This is important because the standard by which a court determines if the case should proceed to trial or not depends on this determination. In Jackson v. Cal-Western Packaging Corp., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit applied the Circuit’s test for determining whether an age-related comment constitutes direct evidence of discrimination or is merely a stray remark that may constitute circumstantial evidence of discrimination.
Jackson, a sixty-nine year old employee, had his employment separated following an internal and external harassment investigation that resulting in a determination that he violated the company’s anti-harassment policy. He brought suit alleging that he was terminated because of his age. His primary piece of evidence supporting his claim was a comment the decisionmaker allegedly made a year earlier. According to Jackson, the decisionmaker told another coworker that Jackson was an "old, gray-haired fart" and that the coworker would be in charge when Jackson retired.
As the Court reiterated, to constitute direct evidence of discrimination the comment must 1) relate to the protected class of persons that the plaintiffs belongs; 2) be proximate in time to the complained of adverse employment action; 3) made by a person with authority over the employment decision at issue; and 4) relate to the employment decision at issue. Because the comment was made more than a year before Jackson’s termination and did not relate to the decision at issue, the court held the comment did not constitute direct evidence of age discrimination.
Absent direct evidence of age discrimination Jackson was forced to prove, by circumstantial evidence, that the company’s stated reasons for his termination were false or untrue. Stated another way, he had to show that the company did not reasonably believe that he violated the anti-harassment policy (sometime referred to as the "honest belief rule"). Given that the company conducted both internal and external investigations and that witnesses of both sex corroborated the claims made against Jackson, there was no evidence that the company did not reasonably believe that he violated the anti-harassment policy nor evidence that the company’s stated reasons for terminating Jackson’s employment were false. Consequently, the Court affirmed the judgment in favor of the employer.