The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently held that an older worker whose employment was terminated in a reduction-in-force had failed to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination because she did not prove that she was replaced by a younger person.

In Schoonmaker v. Spartan Graphics Leasing LLC, Harriet Schoonmaker was terminated from her position as a bindery worker as part of a reduction-in-force at Spartan Graphics. She sued her former employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, claiming that the company retained a 29-year-old employee while terminating the two oldest employees in the department.

To state a prima facie case of disparate treatment, the court noted that the plaintiff must establish that (1) she was a member of the protected class, (2) she was discharged, (3) she was qualified for her job, and (4) she was replaced by someone outside of the protected class. The parties agreed that Schoonmaker established the first three elements of a prima facie case, leaving only the fourth element at issue.

The court stated that when a termination arises as part of a RIF, the fourth element is modified to require the plaintiff to provide “additional direct, circumstantial, or statistical evidence tending to indicate that the employer singled out the plaintiff for discharge for impermissible reasons,” (citing Barnes v. GenCorp Inc., 896 F.2d 1457 (6th Cir. 1990)). The court found that Schoonmaker showed “nothing more than the fact of an age differential,” based on the company’s retention of a 29-year-old employee. Schoonmaker failed to establish that she was replaced because she did not show another employee who was hired or reassigned to perform her duties.

Schoonmaker argued that the court ignored her additional evidence, including that (a) a 29-year-old employee, Melanie Taylor, was retained and the two oldest employees on her shift were let go, (b) her supervisor did not use the criteria stated in the company’s employee handbook, and (3) her supervisor did not review personnel files for criteria he admitted should have been considered.

The court held that although “additional evidence” can include a showing that employees outside of the protected class were retained in the same position, Schoonmaker would have to show that she possessed superior qualities to Taylor in order to meet her burden of establishing a prima facie case in the context of a reduction in work force. The court found that the fact that the company’s termination of the two oldest employees was not a statistically relevant sample to be probative of discrimination. The court also held that even if Schoonmaker had established a prima facie case, she could not rebut Spartan Graphics’ stated reasons for firing her—low productivity and the inability to get along with others—and prove that they actually were pretexts for age discrimination. “Even if Spartan Graphics’ reasons were subjective, the evidence does not raise an inference of age-based discrimination,” the court held.