Okay, so George Clooney was not involved in this case, but he has one thing in common with the employee who filed the age discrimination claim in Goudeau v. National Oilwell Varco, L.P. – they are almost the same age.
When Maurice Goudeau was terminated by National Oilwell Varco (NOV) in 2011, he was 57 years old and had been working for the company and its predecessors for 18 years. Approximately 12 months before his termination, he began working with a new supervisor, who told him that “there sure [were] a lot of old farts around here,” asked Goudeau about the age of two older employees also assigned to this supervisor, and told Goudeau that he planned to fire both of them. Later, he also told Goudeau that he wore “old man clothes,” called him an “old fart,” and said that a smoking area was “where the old people met.”
Over the course of the next twelve months, Goudeau – who in the prior 17 years had an exemplary work record – received four write-ups and a poor annual performance review, and was terminated for insubordination and poor job performance. The evidence showed that although he had complained about his supervisor’s “old fart” comment to the human resources department, they did nothing to investigate his complaint. Two months after his termination, the two older employees previously mentioned by his supervisor were also terminated for various reasons.
Goudeau brought an age discrimination lawsuit against NOV, arguing that he was written up for not doing tasks that were not in his job description, that he never saw the write ups prior to his termination or given an opportunity to take any corrective steps (as required per NOV’s own policy), and that NOV used the write-ups as a pretext for firing him, but that he was really fired because of his age.
The trial court dismissed his age discrimination and retaliation claims, but the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the “old fart” comments, combined with NOV’s failure to follow its own write-up and discipline procedures with respect to Goudeau, and the termination of two older employees, presented enough evidence to allow the case to go in front of the jury (as opposed to dismissing it outright like NOV argued). The Fifth Circuit, therefore, send the case back to the trial court so that the jury could decide whether NOV fired Goudeau based on his age, and whether the write-ups and a poor performance review were just a pretext for his termination.
TAKEAWAY: Normally, “stray comments” about age, race/color, sex, religion, national origin, physical disability or age, are not sufficient to give rise to an employment discrimination claim. However, where such comments are later followed by an adverse employment action, such as termination or demotion, a risk of a discrimination lawsuit is very high.
Of course, while an employer can provide employment discrimination training to its employees, it cannot guarantee that all employees will follow it. However, employers can do two things, which NOV did not do, to minimize litigation. First, employers should never ignore discrimination complaints, however, small or petty they might seem at the time they are made. Had the HR conducted the investigation and reprimanded or warned the supervisor about the inappropriate age comments, NOV might have avoided going to court. Second, if a company has a progressive discipline policy (by the way, not required under Texas law), it should apply such policy in a consistent and uniform manner. When it comes to discrimination claims, not having a progressive discipline policy is almost better than having one that is applied arbitrarily.
You can read the entire court opinion in Goudeau v. National Oilwell Varco, L.P. here.
Leiza Dolghih represents both employers and employees in litigation and arbitration proceedings in state and federal courts. If you are facing an actual or a potential employment dispute, contact Ms. Dolghih for a confidential consultation at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.