In Zaniboni v. Massachusetts Trial Court, the Massachusetts Appeals Court vacated a jury verdict in favor of an employee of the Plymouth County Division of the Probate and Family Court Department (Trial Court) who claimed that she had been subjected to age discrimination when the Trial Court rescinded her promotion to Head Administrative Assistant (HAA).
In 1998, the plaintiff interviewed for one of two open HAA positions and was given the job. An unsuccessful applicant, Laurie Devitt, filed a grievance under a collective bargaining agreement, citing irregularities in the interview process. As a result of the grievance, the Trial Court agreed to re-interview Devitt and the plaintiff. At the conclusion of the interview process nearly two years later, the Trial Court demoted the plaintiff and offered Devitt the job.
The plaintiff sued under Chapter 151B, claiming that the decision had been based on age discrimination. A jury found in the plaintiff's favor, and the trial judge denied the Trial Court's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
The Appeals Court reversed. Although the Appeals Court found that the plaintiff had produced sufficient evidence to prove her prima facie case, she failed to rebut the defendant's legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for giving the position to Devitt. Specifically, Devitt was better qualified: she had four more years of experience, had supervised more employees, and had experience working in more departments than the plaintiff. Devitt also had seniority over the plaintiff under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. While the plaintiff had testified that there was "an atmosphere of age discrimination" at the Trial Court and provided unsubstantiated anecdotes about the Trial Court's alleged practice of promoting younger employees, she produced no "concrete statistical data." The Appeals Court held that, without such corroborating evidence, the plaintiff's generalizations were insufficient to show that the rationale cited by the Trial Court for its decision to promote Devitt was pretextual: "In short, the plaintiff was unable to refute the defendant's legitimate, nondiscriminatory claim that Devitt was more qualified for the HAA position."
The Appeals Court's emphasis in Zaniboni on the need for statistical data to corroborate anecdotal evidence of discrimination is likely to serve as helpful authority for employers litigating pretext cases under Chapter 151B. And employers who have litigated such cases in Massachusetts in the past may experience a sense of schadenfreude upon learning that a Massachusetts court, too, has found itself on the defense side of an age discrimination claim.