Age Discrimination Suit Illustrates Rules for Firing Employees

Roxane Montgomery was hired in October of 2001 as an assistant manager for a video store owned by C & C Self Enterprises, Inc. in Lake Charles. She was 41 years old. Five months later, on April 8, 2002, she was terminated.

Ms. Montgomery sued C & C Self Enterprises claiming that she was terminated because of her age. The Louisiana Age Discrimination Employment Act makes it unlawful for an employer to “fail or refuse to hire, or to discharge, any individual with respect to his compensation, or his terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of the individual’s age.” Included in her claim that her employer violated LADEA, Ms. Montgomery alleged that she suffered “severe emotional distress resulting in physical complications due to her wrongful termination.” C & C Self Enterprises answered by denying that Ms Montgomery was fired because of her age, but was instead fired because of her “inadequate job performance.” They followed up their answer to the complaint by filing a motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment and awarded the plaintiff $50,000.

Roxane Montgomery v. C & C Self Enterprises, Inc., was appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals from the Fourteenth Judicial District Court of the Parish of Calcasieu. The purpose of this article is to identify and discuss the necessary elements of a successful age discrimination claim and to identify why the trial court erred when it denied C & C Self Enterprises’ motion for summary judgement. The Third Circuit court looked at Federal case law to assist in making their decision because LADEA is “nearly identical” to the Federal statute prohibiting age discrimination: the court looked at the U.S. Supreme Court decision McDonnell Douglas v. Green 411 U.S. 792 (1973) because this decision “set forth the basic allocation of burdens and order of presentation of proof in an unemployment discrimination case.”

ELEMENTS OF AN AGE DISCRIMINATION CLAIM
In this case and any case involving an age discrimination claim, the plaintiff has an initial burden to establish a prima facie case (“a case in which the evidence presented is sufficient for a judgment to be made unless the evidence is contested”) of discrimination. To establish a prima facie case, the plaintiff “must show that: (1) she is in the protected age group between the ages of 40 and 70 years (2) her employment with the defendant was involuntarily terminated, and (3) she was qualified to perform the job she was employed to perform.” By fulfilling these three requirements a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, which results in the creation of “a presumption that the defendant unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff.”

In addition to the creation of this presumption, the defendant then is subjected to a burden of production: the defendant must produce evidence of a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its actions. If the defendant succeeds in doing so, the presumption of discrimination ceases to exist. Also, if the defendant provides these reasons, the burden shifts again to the plaintiff. Now the plaintiff has to prove “by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant’s proffered reasons were merely ‘pretext’, or in other words, not the true reason for the alleged discrimination.”

It is not enough for the plaintiff to prove that the defendant’s reasons were pretext. The plaintiff must prove that “age must actually have played a role in the employers decision making process and had a determinative influence in the outcome.” In other words age must have “motivated the employers decision.”

To summarize, when residents like Ms Montgomery of Calcasieu Parish make a claim based on age discrimination, she first has to establish a prima facie case. If she does so, a presumption is created that the defendant has impermissibly discriminated against her. Next, the defendant must now give reasons for its conduct: reasons that are legitimate and non-discriminatory. Then the plaintiff has the opportunity to prove that the defendant’s reasons are not the true reasons for the alleged discrimination. The plaintiff must prove that these reasons are pre-textual, and she must prove that her termination was caused by age discrimination.

This is the process for making an age discrimination claim. There were some issues in this process during the trial court phase of the present case. The Third Circuit identified some of the issues with the plaintiff’s claim and concluded that the trial court erred in not granting summary judgement to the defendant.
SUMMARY JUDGMENT WAS APPROPRIATE AT TRAIL COURT LEVEL
Before summary judgment can be granted two requirements must be met 1) there must be no genuine issue of material fact 2) the moving party must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The trial court did not grant C & C Self Enterprises’ motion for summary judgment. The Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision. The Third Circuit opinion revealed that the trial court should have granted summary judgment.

Seemingly (the rhetoric of the opinion is not quite clear) the trial court’s decision was based on the fact that the judge did not believe the reasons provided by C& C for the termination of Ms. Montgomery. The judge explained: ” So as I understand it, if I find a prima facie case of unemployment; if I find that the employer was not truthful in the reason for termination, which I do in this case. I don’t think they gave me a good reason or a truthful reason for terminating Ms. Montgomery..So I find for the Plaintiff, that she was terminated because of violation of the termination — the law under 23:311 et seq.”(LADEA). The Third Circuit concluded that the trial court erred in ruling for the “plaintiff based upon a finding of ‘pretext’ without evidence of an intentional act as required by law…It is not enough that the trial court simply disbelieves the employer’s ‘proffered reasons’, the plaintiff must establish by preponderance of the evidence that age was the ‘but for’ reason the employer terminated the plaintiff, as opposed to merely a motivating factor.”

The Third Circuit went further and claimed that “We find that the record does not permit a reasonable fact finder to conclude that the plaintiff proved the defendant terminated her employment because of her age.” The trial court overweighed the importance of disbelieving the defendant’s reasons for terminating Ms. Montgomery. “Because an employer’s proffered reason is unpersuasive or even obviously contrived, does not necessarily establish that the plaintiff’s assertion of age discrimination is correct.” Also, the trial court “must believe that the plaintiff has proven its explanation of intentional discrimination.” None of the reasons that Ms Montgomery gave for being fired were sufficient to “prove that the defendant acted with discriminatory animus in terminating her employment.”
Perhaps even more importantly, the Third Circuit noticed that Ms Montgomery was hired and fired by the same person, who was also over 40 years old. They cited Proud v Stone (945 F.2d 796) for the following point: “in cases where the hirer and firer are the same individual and the termination of employment occurs within a relatively short time span following the hiring, a strong inference exists that discrimination was not a determining factor for the adverse action taken by the employer…There is nothing in the record to rebut this inference.” The ultimate conclusion reached: “There was no sufficient showing that the plaintiff’s age actually played a role or had a determinative influence in the defendant’s decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment.”

Summary judgment could have been granted in this case because the plaintiff failed to satisfy the elements required by LADEA in establishing a successful age discrimination claim. Ms. Montgomery did not establish that the defendant’s proffered reasons for her termination were pre-textual. Nor did she establish that there was a causal relationship between the defendant’s reasons and her termination: a relationship that is required by the statute. Because Ms. Montgomery did not meet any of the legal elements required for an age discrimination claim, C & C Self Enterprises is entitled to judgement as a matter of law; and thus, summary judgment would have been appropriate.