This case raised the issue whether a plaintiff in an age discrimination case under Mass. Gen. L. c. 151B must prove that she was replaced by a “substantially younger” employee or merely by a younger employee. Avon hired Mary Shea Knight, then 44, as a district sales manager Two years later Avon discovered that Knight had an interest in a store that sold competing cosmetic products and fired her. Avon replaced Knight with a woman twenty-eight months younger. Knight sued Avon for age discrimination under c. 151B. A Berkshire superior court jury found in her favor, awarding her front pay of $420,000, back pay of $225,000, and emotional distress damages of $150,000. After the superior court denied Avon’s motion for a new trial, Avon appealed, arguing that in the absence of direct evidence of age discrimination, Knight must prove that she was replaced by a substantially younger employee. The Supreme Judicial Court granted Avon’s motion for direct appellate review, and solicited amicus briefs.
NELF filed a brief in support of Avon arguing that the SJC should adopt the “substantially younger” test applied by the federal courts under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. A “substantially younger” requirement is consistent with the role of a prima facie case in the three-stage analysis under c. 151B, which is to support a presumption of discrimination in the absence of direct proof. When the replacement employee is insignificantly younger, that fact has no probative value and the presumption of discrimination is not warranted. NELF demonstrated that federal circuit courts require a replacement employee to be five to ten years younger to sustain a prima facie case under the ADEA. While acknowledging that the SJC does not always elect to follow federal law, NELF argued that that the rationale underlying the federal cases is equally applicable to cases under c. 151B. NELF argued that such a ruling does not deprive insignificantly older employees the opportunity to demonstrate that they were, in fact, discriminated against on the basis of their age. Rather, such a ruling removes the presumption in favor of the employee and against the employer in such cases, leveling the playing field and requiring the employee to produce either direct evidence of discrimination or evidence of disparate treatment.
The SJC agreed, ruling that the substantially younger standard was appropriate and that a terminated employee replaced by someone less than five years younger did not, without other evidence, present a triable claim of age discrimination.