A 62-year-old man who was terminated from his position as a printing plant facilities manager has provided sufficient evidence to establish he may have been unlawfully replaced by a younger employee, despite the company's claims to the contrary, says an appeals court, in reversing a lower court ruling and reinstating an age discrimination lawsuit.
James Pierson was terminated from his position as a plant facilities manager at the Dickson, Tenn., plant of Sussex, Wis.-based Quad/Graphics Printing Corp. in August 2011, after the company had announced a comprehensive, companywide cost-cutting initiative, according to Friday's ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of in Appeals in Cincinnati in James C. Pierson v. Quad/Graphics Printing Corp. et al.
Mr. Pierson filed suit in U.S. District Court in Nashville, Tenn., charging the company with age discrimination and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and state law.
The District Court granted Quad/Graphics summary judgment dismissing the case, concluding in part that Mr. Pierson had provided no evidence to show either that his position was not eliminated as part of a reduction in force or that he had been singled out for elimination based on his age during companywide terminations, according to the appellate ruling.
Mr. Pierson appealed the age discrimination ruling.
A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit unanimously disagreed with the lower court. The company contended that 47-year-old David DePriest, who became plant manager, did not replace Mr. Pierson because Mr. DePriest retained his pre-existing duties pertaining to energy management, energy procurement and project support for other local plants in addition to assuming Mr. Pierson's responsibilities, said the ruling.
However the company's position “is undermined by evidence that both positions were full-time jobs with a 'huge workload,' and that DePriest's work hours did not increase.”
The ruling continued: “Although it is possible that DePriest continued to perform his former energy-procurement functions from his new Dickson location, a reasonable jury could infer that, because DePriest was physically located in the Dickson facility and traveling less frequently while maintaining the same work hours, he was not able to perform fully all of his existing job functions.
“Moreover, multiple (Quad/Graphics) employees made statements that support Pierson's claim that DePriest replaced Pierson as the facilities manager and abandoned many of his former responsibilities,” the ruling said.
Shifting justifications for termination
The appeals court also said the reasons provided by the supervisor who decided to terminate Mr. Pierson, Carl Lentz, shifted.
“Although Lentz claims that he immediately selected Pierson for termination based on his assessment that the facilities manager position could be eliminated without hardship to the company, he later justified the decision by preparing performance evaluations that reflect that Pierson was not a 'team player,'” the ruling said.
“Subsequently, when Lentz met with Pierson and discharged him, he did not mention that performance deficiencies played any role in the decision. But when Pierson later inquired about appealing the termination decision,” a company representative told him the decision was based on performance, not age, said the ruling.
“Such shifting justifications raise an inference that the proffered reasons are false and are pretext for discrimination,” said the appellate court, in reversing the District Court's grant of summary judgment and remanding the case for further proceedings.