The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Ortiz-Rivera v. AstraZeneca LP, recently ruled that isolated and ambiguous remarks were unrelated to the termination of a sales representative’s employment and did not support her claim that the reasons AstraZeneca gave for terminating her were a pretext for age discrimination.
Doris Ortiz-Rivera sued AstraZeneca under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Puerto Rico law after her employment was terminated when she was 40 years old. AstraZeneca countered that she had misrepresented expense account information, claimed that she made sales calls to multiple doctors within a five to seven minute period of time, violated company policy regarding report writing and failed to accurately disclose her educational background on her resume. It argued that “any one of these instances is grounds for termination and all of them together raised serious doubts about Plaintiff’s honesty.”
To rebut these proffered reasons, Ortiz-Rivera set forth “four allegedly ageist remarks” made by her supervisor and a coworker. First, she claimed that when she notified her supervisor that she had a medical condition, the supervisor replied, “These things come with age.” Second, she claimed that a co-worker who was selling bikinis told her she was “too old” to wear a bikini. The court found that the two comments “were rude but not related to the decision to terminate Plaintiff’s employment.” Ortiz-Rivera relied on two other age-related remarks as evidence of pretext. She claimed that when her supervisor was meeting with her to review the improper expense reports, the supervisor told her: “You are too old, Doris. You are too old for this. You are too old to be making these mistakes. This is unacceptable.” She also claimed that she was told she “was old enough to know what it means to lie and to omit” information by two supervisors she met with to discuss questions about her performance and dishonesty.
The court found that those two remarks were “at best, ambiguous.” “Though made by supervisors close to the time of Plaintiff’s termination, the comments arguably reflect a belief that positive attributes such as honesty and accuracy come with age.” The court found that both statements “could be expressions of confusion about Plaintiff’s actions, admonishments to act responsibly, or remarks indicating animus.” “Because these statements are ambiguous, they are insufficient to prove Defendant’s discriminatory intent.”
The court found that Ortiz-Rivera had failed to offer any additional proof of discriminatory intent. Moreover, the court noted that two of the supervisors about whom she complained had participated in both hiring and firing her and they provided several valid concerns about her honesty. Additionally, it noted that of the three people who participated in the decision to fire Ortiz-River, two were more than five years older than she was.