Age Matters In Layoff Decisions

In 2002, Roger Dyals was hired as a lieutenant by the Camden County, Georgia Sheriff’s Department. By 2009, when Tommy Gregory was elected Sheriff, Dyals was a captain. Gregory demoted Dyals to the position of deputy fleet manager, and told Dyals, “Well, you either accept it or you can go home.” In January 2010, Dyals was demoted again, this time to courtroom deputy.

Dee Grant Porter was a paramedic in the Jail/Corrections Division of the Department. In 2009, Gregory made the decision to contract out the medical care to a private company in order to save money, and reassigned Porter as a deputy to the special operations unit. Porter excelled at this position, drawing high praise and excellent performance evaluations from his supervisor.

In 2011, Dyals and Porter, along with seven other employees, were laid off. At the time of their termination, Dyals was 66 and Porter was 50 years old. Despite laying off nine employees aged 70, 66, 56, 54, 50, 43, 41, and 38 because of allegedly limited funds, Gregory continued to advertise for and hire new employees throughout 2011 and 2012. In fact, the Sheriff hired three employees – one corrections officer and two deputies – on June 27, 2011, two days prior to the lay-offs.

Over the next several months, the Sheriff hired an additional 18 employees, including four deputies, 12 corrections officers, one finance officer, and one administrative clerk. The ages of the new hires ranged from 19 to 51, and only three of the hires were over the age of 40.

Dyals and Porter sued, claiming they were the victims of age discrimination. Gregory promptly moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that no evidence supported even an inference of age discrimination.

A federal court refused to dismiss the lawsuit, finding that Dyals and Porter had produced sufficient circumstantial evidence to create a jury question on whether Gregory intended to discriminate on the basis of their age. Key to the Court’s conclusion was that “Dyals testified that it was relayed to him that in a meeting Sheriff Gregory stated, ‘Why would I get rid of a younger deputy when I can get rid of a Bill Argo or Roger Dyals?’ Dyals also testified regarding a conversation he had with a fellow employee in which the employee told Dyals that ‘he did not understand why Sheriff Gregory was making comments about doing something about the old people at the courthouse.’ The employee said, ‘I don’t know why the Sheriff is so bound and determined to get rid of you and that other greybeard,’ pointing to Argo. Although Porter is not specifically named, this testimony is sufficient to permit a jury to infer that Sheriff Gregory intended to discriminate against the older employees in the Sheriff’s Office.”

Gregory argued that the layoff decisions were made because the Sheriff’s Office budget was cut by approximately $600,000 for the 2012 fiscal year, and that the evidence of that the layoffs were a pretext for age discrimination was nothing more than a “weak, amorphous whiff of discrimination.” The Court disagreed, noting that “despite the apparent budgetary constraints which necessitated the termination of nine trained and experienced employees, the Sheriff approved the hire of three individuals on June 27, 2011, two days prior to the layoffs. The ages of the three individuals hired were 25, 39, and 51, which stands in stark contrast to the ages of the terminated employees: 70, 66, 56, 54, 50, 43, 41, and 38.

“When asked to explain, Sheriff Gregory testified that the hiring process for these three individuals could have begun up to two weeks in advance, and during that time he received word that he would not receive the full budget that he had requested. However, based on the budget documents, it should not have come as a surprise to the Sheriff that the adopted budget (for the Sheriff’s Office and Jail/Corrections) was well short of his request. The record demonstrates that the adopted budget consistently fell short of the budget requested by the Sheriff.

“In addition to the pre-termination hires, Sheriff Gregory continued to hire [younger] employees throughout the 2012 fiscal year despite the reduced budget. There is significant circumstantial evidence that the Sheriff’s budgetary explanation for the terminations was pretextual, and the Sheriff’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit is denied.”

Dyals v. Gregory, 2014 WL 4629106 (S.D. Ga. 2014).