Ninth Circuit Finds in Favor of Plaintiff’s Age Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

by Hunter Pyle on Apr. 28, 2017

Employment 

Summary: Ninth Circuit Finds in Favor of Plaintiff’s Age Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

Gilberto Santillan will have another opportunity to demonstrate that his employer of 32 years, USA Waste of California, Inc., wrongfully terminated him on the basis of his age and retaliated against him.  On April 7, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal held that Mr. Santillan established a prima facie case under his claims for age discrimination and retaliation in Santillan v. USA Waste of California, Inc.  (No. 15-55238, 2017 WL 1289971 (9th Cir. Apr. 7, 2017)).  The Court further held that USA Waste failed to provide any evidence that it had a legitimate reason for firing him.

Mr. Santillan started working at USA Waste in 1979 as a residential garbage truck driver.  He had virtually no performance issues for the first thirty years of his employment.  In 2009, USA Waste assigned Mr. Santillan a new route manager.  This new manager tried to discipline Mr. Santillan six times in a period of about a year and a half.  Then, in December 2011, USA Waste fired Mr. Santillan.  Two days later, Mr. Santillan filed a grievance with his union challenging his termination.  In May 2012, USA Waste entered into a settlement agreement and agreed to reinstate Mr. Santillan if he passed a drug test, a physical exam, and a criminal background check.  Mr. Santillan also had to provide documentation showing that he was eligible to work in the United States under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).  Despite entering into a settlement agreement, USA Waste refused to reinstate Mr. Santillan because he was unable to provide the information necessary to show he was authorized to work in the United States.

In December 2013, Mr. Santillan filed a complaint against his employer alleging wrongful termination based on 1) age discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act and 2) retaliation.  USA Waste filed a summary judgment motion, which the district court granted.  The district court held that Mr. Santillan failed to establish a prima facie case for his age discrimination claim.  The court granted summary judgment on the retaliation claim on the basis that USA Waste had a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for terminating Mr. Santillan, namely, that he did not produce the necessary ICRA documentation.

The Ninth Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of USA Waste on both the age discrimination and retaliation claims.  The Ninth Circuit considered two pieces of evidence with regards to the age discrimination claim:  1) Mr. Santillan’s testimony that he was one of five older Spanish-speaking employees that were fired or suspended once the new route manager came on board in 2009; and 2) the thirteen year age gap between Mr. Santillan and his replacement even though the replacement was over the age of forty.  When addressing the retaliation claim, the Ninth Circuit found that IRCA exempted Mr. Santillan from proving that he was eligible for employment in the U.S.  Further, the Court found that making Mr. Santillan’s reinstatement contingent upon proof of his eligibility of employment contravened California public policy.  Thus, USA Waste failed to meet its burden.

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