• THIRD CIRCUIT DETERMINES THAT MCDONNELL DOUGLAS BURDEN-SHIFTING FRAMEWORK STILL APPLIES TO AGE DISCRIMINATION CLAIMS
  • July 12, 2010 | Authors: Edward Easterly; George C. Hlavac; Steven E. Hoffman; Jeffrey S. Stewart
  • Law Firm: Tallman Hudders & Sorrentino, Pennsylvania office of Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A. - Allentown Office
  •         THIRD CIRCUIT DETERMINES THAT
      MCDONNELL DOUGLAS BURDEN-SHIFTING
          FRAMEWORK STILL APPLIES TO AGE
                 DISCRIMINATION CLAIMS

    The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently decided the case of

     

     

    Smith v. City of Allentown, 589 F.3d 684 (3d Cir. 2009). Smith is a significant development in the way age discrimination cases will be decided. Smith represents a departure by the Third Circuit from the United States Supreme Court’s latest pronouncement on age discrimination law.

     

    Smith lawsuit. Specifically, Smith claimed that the City’s decision to terminate him from the position of superintendant of the City’s Recreation Bureau was based upon on his age and political affiliation.

     

    McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Under McDonnell Douglas, after a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the defendant has the burden of production to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. If the defendant is able to accomplish this task, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to establish that the employer’s proffered reason for the adverse action was pretextual.

     

    prima facie case and that the reasons offered by the City and the Mayor constituted a legitimate, nondiscriminatory rationale for his termination. Accordingly, the only issue which remained was whether Smith had set forth sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the defendants relied upon his job performance as a pretext for age discrimination.

     

    Gross v. FBL which had come down subsequent to the District Court’s ruling in Smith.

     

    Gross, the Supreme Court held that individuals who claim to have been subject to age discrimination must establish that “but-for” their age the employer would not have taken an adverse action. The “but-for” standard is a particularly onerous standard for plaintiffs to overcome. The Court’s decision was based upon the plain language of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), which requires a plaintiff to establish that the employer took the adverse employment action "because of [the plaintiff's] age." As such, the Court held that the burden-shifting framework was inapplicable in claims pursuant to the ADEA.

     

    Smith, the Third Circuit held that the Gross decision did not render the McDonnell Douglas burdenshifting framework inapplicable. Rather, it stood “for the proposition that it is improper to shift the burden of persuasion to the defendant in an age discrimination case.” This includes the burden of proving “but-for” causation or causation in fact. In this regard, the Third Circuit stated that "[w]hile we recognize that Gross expressed significant doubt about any burden-shifting under the ADEA, we conclude that the but-for causation standard required by Gross does not conflict with our continued application of the McDonnell Douglas paradigm in age discrimination cases."

     

    McDonnell Douglas framework and found that there was no evidence that Smith’s age caused his termination. As such, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision in favor of the City of Allentown and its Mayor.

     

    Gross decision may not be realized for a period of time, it is apparent from the Third Circuit’s decision in Smith that plaintiffs bringing age discrimination cases in courts within the Third Circuit will have a lower hurdle to overcome when trying to establish a claim for age discrimination than was contemplated by the Supreme Court in Gross. It is expected that the Supreme Court will re-visit this issue at its earliest opportunity. In the meantime, courts within the Third Circuit will continue to analyze age discrimination claims pursuant to the traditional McDonnell Douglas test.

     

    Labor & Employment Law Alert was written by George C. Hlavac, Steven E. Hoffman, Jeffrey S. Stewart, and Edward J. Easterly of the Labor and Employment Group of Tallman Hudders & Sorrentino, the Pennsylvania office of Norris McLaughlin & Marcus. If you have any questions regarding the information in this Alert, please do not hesitate to contact any of the authors.

     

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    Labor & Employment Alert provides information to our clients and friends about current legal developments of general interest in the area of labor and employment law. The information contained in this Alert should not be construed as legal advice, and readers should not act upon such without professional counsel. Copyright © 2010 Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A.

     

     

     

     

     

    Our Labor & Employment Group counsels private and public sector clients on a wide range of issues, including workforce counseling; labor and employee relations; corporate and workforce compliance; review and updating employment policies and procedures; employment litigation; unfair competition and trade secrets; privacy and e-discovery issues, employment training; employee benefits and tax issues; wage and hour compliance; immigration and government contracts.

     

     

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    Accordingly, the Third Circuit analyzed Smith’s appeal using the

     

     

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    The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment in favor of the City and the Mayor holding that Smith had failed to produce evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that the City’s reasons for termination were a pretext for discrimination. Smith appealed the ruling to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. In affirming the District Court’s summary judgment determination, the Third Circuit analyzed the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in

     

     

    In this case, the parties had stipulated that Smith possessed sufficient evidence to establish a

     

     

    Smith based his claims of age discrimination on several alleged actions by the City and its representatives. Smith contended that when he was confronted by the director of the Bureau about his performance, reference was made with regard to his birthday and employment anniversary date. Smith further alleged that the Director of Human Resources recommended that he not be discharged. Finally, Smith claimed that the City failed to follow its progressive discipline policy when it made the determination to terminate his employment. The City contended that the decision to terminate Smith’s employment was based upon his failure to achieve set goals; his inability to maintain the City’s golf course in an adequate manner; and his failure to properly organize the City’s annual Halloween parade.

    At the time this matter was pending before the District Court, claims for age discrimination were analyzed under the familiar

     

     

    The Labor and Employment Department of Tallman, Hudders & Sorrentino successfully represented the City of Allentown and its Mayor in the