Antonia Susel claimed that her employer, Dix & Eaton, fired her after she alleged that her boss wanted to replace her with a man nearly half her age. Ms. Susel pursued numerous claims, included age and gender discrimination. Last week, a Cuyahoga County jury ruled in favor of Dix & Eaton on four of the five claims. The sole count on which Ms. Susel won – retaliation – brought with it a $1,032,000 verdict. Even though Dix & Eaton replaced Ms. Susel (age 59) by a 32-year-old man after she informed her boss that she did not intend to retire until age 66, the jury did not believe that her age or her gender motivated her termination. According to Ms. Susel’s attorneys (as reported by Olivera Perkins at cleveland.com), she was fired five months after she “went to the human resources manager … and said she felt she was being set up for a wrongful discharge because of her age.” That allegation netted her a $1 million verdict.
This verdict illustrates the risk posed by retaliation liability. No employee is bullet proof; merely lodging a complaint about discrimination does not guarantee a job-for-life. But, if you plan on firing an employee who has complained about discrimination or engaged in some other protected activity, make sure that you are protected by having performance problems or other legitimate grounds for the termination documented before the internal complaint.