A federal jury Thursday found against a longtime Lincoln Electric System spokeswoman who sued the city of Lincoln saying she felt driven out by her former employer after she complained when her new, 30-something supervisor told her she had a "reptilian brain."
The company gave Carolyn Douglas a retirement party when she decided to leave in 2015 after 37 years. Then she sued.
Her attorney, James Zalewski, said the "succession plan" at LES coded employees 65 or older in red, essentially putting a target on their backs.
"'You're too old to do your job. You're too old to understand what I'm trying to tell you.' Nobody wants to hear that," Zalewski said in closing arguments Thursday in U.S. District Court. "I don't care whether you're a salesperson, communications specialist, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an office manager, anything. Yet that's what happened to Carolyn Douglas in this case."
Soon after Douglas complained about her supervisor telling her, "I'd explain it to you, but with your reptilian brain you wouldn't understand it," suddenly Douglas couldn't do anything right, he said.
Age discrimination came first, Zalewski alleged, then retaliation.
But Susan Sapp, one of the attorneys representing the city, said the evidence failed on both counts.
"Mrs. Douglas came nowhere near meeting her burden of proof that being over 40 and filing an ethics complaint had anything to do with her evaluations or her performance improvement plan," she told the jury.
Sapp said Douglas didn't even allege age discrimination until after she left.
In the complaint against her supervisor, Douglas chose "workplace harassment" from the drop-down form, not age discrimination, she said.
Sapp said maybe jurors thought Douglas' supervisor shouldn't have made the comment about a "reptilian brain" mode.
"That's fine," she said. "What it's not is illegal."
Sapp said an employer is entitled to make its own subjective personnel decisions for any reason that is not discriminatory.
"That's what they did. It had nothing to do with her age," she said.
In the end, the jury agreed, returning with a verdict in favor of the city.