WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has ordered a new hearing for a man who charged that a Baltimore casket company fired him because of his age.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said, in a published decision Thursday, that while the Warfield-Rohr Casket Co. may have had legitimate reasons for firing Frederick Kuehnl, that does not rule out age discrimination in his case.
It said the district court was wrong to grant summary judgment in favor of the casket company, and ordered the lower court to reopen the case, which was filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Kuehnl’s behalf.
Kuehnl was hired in 1971 to install custom casket interiors, a process called “trimming,” for Warfield-Rohr, which sells caskets to funeral homes in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware.
At the time, Kuehnl was one of 13 employees working in the trimming room. He was promoted to foreman in 1982 and became a salaried employee.
By the beginning of 1998, the workload had decreased, and the trimming room was down to two employees and Kuehnl — who had continued to trim caskets after his promotion.
Kuehnl claims that one week in April 2000, company owner William Howard Ayres asked him when he was planning to retire — a conversation Kuehnl duly wrote in a journal. Three weeks later, Ayres fired Kuehnl, who was then 56.
In court testimony, Kuehnl said that Ayres told him: “You’re getting too . . . old. You’re making too much . . . money.” But in his journal, Kuehnl wrote only that Ayres told him, “I can’t afford you.”
Kuehnl said he asked Ayres if he could “work less time and less pay to keep my job until 65,” but was turned down. When he asked why a younger employee was not being fired, Kuehnl said that Ayres told him the other worker could give him more years.
According to court documents, Ayres denied ever making any comments about age. He said that he had to fire Kuehnl because he could no longer afford to keep him and because Kuehnl did not get along with other workers. He also noted that there was no corroboration for Kuehnl’s allegations.
Ayres died recently, according to the woman who answered the phone at the casket company Friday.
Both sides in the case sought summary judgment at the district court level.
“We thought we had this very strong evidence that the employer had stated that it had gotten rid of Mr. Kuehnl because he was too old,” said EEOC attorney Carolyn Wheeler. “And when you have the kind of evidence . . . that puts the burden on the employer in proving it would have fired him even if it hadn’t considered his age.
“Since they had the burden of proof on that, we didn’t think they had put in any evidence of legitimate reasons of getting rid of him,” she said.
But U.S. District Judge William Nickerson agreed with the casket company, noting the evidence of low profits as a possible reason for the firing.
The appellate court, however, pointed out that age does not have to be the only factor in order for an age-discrimination suit to proceed, and the employee’s testimony does not have to be corroborated in order for the argument to work.
“Aside from the fact that Kuehnl’s testimony is partially corroborated by his contemporaneous journal entries, there is no requirement that an employee’s testimony be corroborated,” Judge William Wilkins wrote.
“Because the record does not conclusively show that Warfield-Rohr would have terminated Kuehnl absent any discriminatory motive, we reverse and remand for further proceedings,” he wrote.
Wheeler said the case will likely go to trial, but no date has been set yet.
-30- CNS 04-09-04