Friday, November 21, 2014

Buck Stops with Manager – Age Discrimination Lawsuit Thrown Out of Court

Earlier this week in Widmar v. Sun Chemical Corp., the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the employer in an age discrimination lawsuit filed by manager terminated for poor performance.

Plaintiff, George Widmar, worked as a plant manager for Sun Chemical for 16 years and was terminated just before he turned 52.  Widmar oversaw the manufacturing process at two plants.  Widmar attempted to prove that he was terminated based on his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Widmar did not present any direct evidence of discrimination. Rather, he relied on the indirect method of proof for establishing discrimination articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973).

Under the indirect method of proof, a plaintiff has the burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that: (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he met the employer’s legitimate business expectations; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) similarly-situated employees outside of the protected class were treated more favorably.
Because Widmar was 51 and terminated, he met the first and third requirements.  The Court went on to analyze whether the plaintiff had presented evidence to satisfy the second and fourth elements of a prima facie case of employment discrimination under the McDonnell-Douglas inquiry.

Legitimate Performance Expectations

Sun Chemical argued that Widmar failed to establish that he was meeting the employer’s legitimate performance expectations. Specifically, it contended that the legitimate performance expectations required that a plant manager be proactive, take responsibility, keep supervisors informed, work collaboratively to solve problems and produce high quality products for customers.  In other words, the Court found, that Sun Chemical takes a “buck stops here” approach in which it required its plant manager to accept responsibility not just where he has direct control, but rather over all aspects of the plant.  The Court went on to examine the scope of Widmar’s responsibilities and whether he was meeting those expectations of his employer. 

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to create a factual dispute by stating that his job responsibilities ought to have been something other than what the company expected.  The Court noted its prior decisions holding that it is not a super-personnel department that second-guesses employer policies that are facially legitimate.  Rather, the only question is whether the employer’s proffered reason was pretextual, meaning that it was a lie.  The Court further noted that it is not the province of the court to determine whether Sun Chemical’s expectation that Widmar accept responsibility for the listed deficiencies was a fair or reasonable expectation.  As long as Sun Chemical was not using its managerial decision as a foil for a discriminatory purpose, the Court must respect that decision.  

In sum, the Court agreed that if Widmar was not doing what Sun Chemical wanted him to do, then he was not meeting his employer’s legitimate job expectations.  Widmar’s claim that he is not at fault for the deficiencies in his performance added nothing to his case.  Sun Chemical expected him to be more proactive and less finger-pointing in his approach to management and Widmar failed to offer any evidence that these expectations were pretext for age discrimination.

Similarly Situated Employees (Outside of Protected Class) Treated More Favorably

Next, Widmar argued that he presented evidence that employees outside his protected class were treated more favorably and assigned his job responsibilities after he was terminated demonstrates that he met the fourth prong of the burden-shifting test – that similarly-situated employees outside of his class were treated more favorably.  In the end, Widmar offered no evidence of this whatsoever.  He simply mentioned in one sentence that he was not placed on a performance improvement plan even though it was a company policy to do so if the problems were remedial, but again offered no evidence that younger similarly situated employees were given such an opportunity where he was not.  In addition, the evidence showed that Widmar’s duties were absorbed by both younger and older employees.  The Court observed, while it is true that Widmar’s duties were re-delegated among two men who were significantly older than Widmar, and two men who were significantly younger, Widmar has not made a showing that such reassignment was a pretext for discrimination.

Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit held that Widmar had not met his burden of establishing a prima facie case of age discrimination and affirmed the District Court’s summary judgment in favor of the employer.