New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination prohibits employment discrimination, including age discrimination. In interpreting this state law, New Jersey courts look to federal employment law, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or the “ADEA,” passed by Congress in 1967. A recent case by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit addressed a typical issue in age discrimination cases. Since the Third Circuit hears federal appeals from the Federal District Courts in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the United States Virgin Islands, the case, Martinez v. UPMC Susquehanna, is binding on New Jersey cases under the ADEA. However, it is also influential on how New Jersey state courts will interpret the Law Against Discrimination.
Zeferino Martinez, M.D., was a board certified orthopedic surgeon who had four decades of experience practicing medicine. At the time of these events he was seventy years old. A hospital hired Doctor Martinez in 2016 with a three year contract; he was the hospital’s only orthopedic surgeon. In 2017, UPMC Susquehanna purchased the hospital and took over its management. One month later UPMC’s chief operating officer and the executive director of UPMC’s musculoskeletal division fired Martinez. They explained only that UPMC was “moving in a different direction and [Martinez’s] services were no longer needed,” and that his termination “had nothing to do with [his] performance.”
The hospital replaced Martinez with two doctors both of whom, Martinez alleged, were “significantly younger,” “less qualified,” and “less experienced” than him. Matrinez sued UPMC Susquehanna under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), claiming that he was fired because of his age. (Martinez also sued UPMC under Pennsylvania state law.) In the complaint initiating his lawsuit, Doctor Martinez alleged that the two replacements were “substantially younger,” but did not specify their ages.
UPMC filed a motion to dismiss Doctor Martinez’s lawsuit. The trial judge in the Federal District Court dismissed the case, reasoning that because the complaint did not specifically list the two new doctors’ ages, the court could not infer age discrimination. Doctor Martinez appealed to the Third Circuit.
The Third Circuit’s Opinion
The Third Circuit reversed the trial judge’s dismissal. The Third Circuit explained that a complaint need not be overly detailed, but must simply give a short and plain explanation of the basis for the suit which, if true, would entitle the plaintiff to relief from the Court; it “must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” At this point the reviewing court is not concerned with whether the parties can prove the complaint is true or not – that waits until discovery is over and all sides have access to the available evidence. Rather, at this point the court is only concerned with whether if the facts in the complaint were true a jury could find that the suing party could be entitled to judgment.
The Third Circuit ruled that alleging that his replacements were “significantly younger” met this standard. Because “significantly younger” is a factual allegation, not a legal one, the employee should have the opportunity to engage in discovery so that it can present the court with evidence. At this point, evidence of specificity of ages is not required. That only makes sense, the Court explained, since one employee will often not have access to another employee’s actual age, but need initially surmise their age until they can obtain discovery from the employer on what that employee’s age is. Indeed, a fired employee would have no way to know the exact ages of replacements hired after he was fired, so requiring him to plead exact ages would effectively close the courthouse doors to him.
Under the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act it is not necessary to list the exact age of a replacement in the complaint. Merely alleging that they were “significantly younger” will suffice. Because New Jersey courts often looks to Federal law to help them interpret the Legislature’s intent, this case should indicate that New Jersey courts will incorporate this standard when interpreting the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, thus keeping the door to the court house open for employees who have suffered discrimination.
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