Lawyer denied job for being ‘expensive’ wins age discrimination case

Tribunal rules solicitor was not offered the position because of his age and experience despite being the only person interviewed

A senior solicitor has won an age discrimination claim after being rejected for a job at a law firm because he was “expensive”, a tribunal has ruled. 

A Manchester employment tribunal found Raymond Levy was discriminated against because of his age after he was denied a job at McHale Legal, despite being the only person interviewed for the role.

The tribunal ruled that “expensive” was in fact “synonymous with his being an experienced and older solicitor”, and that the firm changed the job requirements to suit a more junior solicitor after it had deemed Levy unsuitable.

The tribunal heard Levy specialises in commercial property law and had worked at a number of firms in London and elsewhere since being admitted as a solicitor in 1985. By early 2018 he was looking for work after being made redundant from his previous position.

On 5 March 2018, Levy called Maria Udalova-Surkova, a senior solicitor specialising in commercial property law at McHale Legal, to express his interest in an advert for a commercial property role, which said it required a solicitor with at least five years’ post-qualification experience (PQE). It was to be based in either Manchester, where the firm had several offices, or London. She told him there was a “fairly urgent” need to fill the role, and it was agreed Levy would send Udalova-Surkova his CV and they would meet for an interview on 7 March.

During the interview, Udalova-Surkova explained McHale Legal wanted to replace a senior associate within the commercial property team, and that the work was “piling up” as the firm was in the middle of a complex project for a client. Levy said he could start immediately and suggested that the pay of the departing associate could form a starting point for salary discussions.

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The tribunal heard evidence that the departing associate’s salary was £42,000, but Levy incorrectly made note that this salary was £45,000. He asked for around £50,000 for the first three months and offered to work on a self-employed consultancy basis afterwards. Udalova-Surkova suggested a start date of “next Monday”, meaning 12 March, but explained the decision was subject to a meeting between the heads of departments. 

This meeting happened on 8 March, and notes from the meeting taken by Udalova-Surkova referenced a salary of £50-60,000, which the tribunal found overstated the amount Levy said he would be looking for. The notes also included the words: “Expensive. Doesn’t cover all our needs.”

There was a follow-up email exchange between Udalova-Surkova and Andrew McHale, the firm’s senior associate, on 9 March, where Udalova-Surkova asked: “Just to confirm, we are not interested in Raymond Levy, right?” The tribunal heard McHale’s reply was: “Yep.” 

Udalova-Surkova emailed Levy on 12 March to say the firm had decided to not offer him the job. She said they had assessed the role’s requirements at the board meeting and decided to aim for a more junior solicitor “with three-to-five years’ PQE” whom they could “mould… to our specific requirements”. 

Levy brought claims of discrimination to the tribunal citing his age as the reason for McHale Legal to not offer him the role.

The tribunal concluded that Levy met all the required qualifications for the role and, had his application gone further, he would have likely been offered the job. It was only after he was deemed “expensive” that McHale Legal decided to change the requirements of the role, and therefore Levy was a victim of age discrimination.

However, Judge Sharon Lanridge decided to mitigate Levy’s award on the basis that he would not have lasted long in the firm. Lanridge said she believed a “clash of personalities… would inevitably have arisen” within the firm, and it had ceased handling commercial property work in the months following the interview.

Because of these reasons, the tribunal found Levy’s appointment would have lasted for one month before he was given a week’s notice.

The tribunal ordered McHale Legal to pay £13,188 for loss of earnings, injury to feelings, aggravated damages and interest to Levy.

Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula, said this case was a useful illustration of how the particular wording of job advertisements may serve to place individuals of a certain age at a disadvantage and result in employers falling foul of equality laws. 

“As seen here, asking for someone with three-to-five years’ PQE is highly likely to only apply to younger applicants, meaning older candidates would automatically miss out on this opportunity because of their age despite meeting the requirements of the role,” Palmer said.

“The fact that the employers, in this case, could not justify this requirement, providing contradictory explanations concerning the cost of the claimant, despite his being willing to negotiate a lower salary with them, was one of the key reasons his claim succeeded.”

Neither McHale Legal nor Levy could be reached for comment.