February 2013 FBA Third Circuit Labor and Employment Law Update

Posted on Tuesday, February 12th, 2013.

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Stephen E. Trimboli, Esq.
Trimboli & Prusinowski, LLC

In Burton v. Teleflex Inc., et. al, decided February 20, 2013, the Third Circuit reaffirmed its position that a plaintiff in a federal discrimination case need not produce proof of discriminatory animus in order to survive a motion for summary judgment. A plaintiff need only show that the defendant’s articulated legitimate reason for the alleged adverse employment action is simply not worthy of belief.

The Burton plaintiff was a woman who had founded two successful medical device parts manufacturing and distribution companies that were subsequently acquired by defendant Teleflex, which kept plaintiff on as an employee involved in new business development. Her relationship were her new immediate supervisor was not a happy one, culminating in a confrontation at a trade show that lay at the heart of the parties’ dispute. Defendants argued that plaintiff effectively tendered her resignation during the confrontation while plaintiff denied having done so, claiming instead that she had been terminated. Each side produced competent evidence to support its position on the question whether plaintiff had or had not resigned her employment.

Plaintiff had brought legal action on a variety of claims, including sex discrimination under Title VII and age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The District Court granted summary judgment in defendants’ favor on all claims. With respect to Title VII and the ADEA, the District Court applied the familiar McDonnell Douglas standard, found that plaintiff had made out a prima facie case of sex and age discrimination, but concluded that she could not demonstrate that defendants’ articulated legitimate reason for her removal was a pretext for discrimination. The District Court found that defendants’ legitimately believed that plaintiff had resigned, and that plaintiff had produced no evidence of discriminatory animus. The Third Circuit reversed.

To make a showing of pretext, “the plaintiff must point to some evidence, direct or circumstantial, from which a factfinder could reasonably either (1) disbelieve the employer’s articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer‟s action.”

The plaintiff’s evidence, if it relates to the credibility of the employer’s proffered justification, “must demonstrate such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them ‘unworthy of credence.'” Once a plaintiff has come forward with sufficient evidence to allow a finder of fact to discredit the employer’s proffered justification, she need not present additional evidence of discrimination beyond her prima facie case to survive summary judgment. “This is because the factfinder may infer from the combination of the prima facie case, and its own rejection of the employer’s proffered reason, that the employer engaged in the adverse employment action for an invidious reason.”

The Burton Court first faulted the District Court for improperly making credibility determinations on a motion for summary judgment. “Burton has proffered evidence from which a factfinder could conclude that Teleflex terminated her. Burton maintains that she did not resign from Teleflex, and that she never told anyone that she had resigned. In fact, no Teleflex employee ever confirmed with Burton that she had actually resigned before Teleflex ‘accepted [her] resignation.’ .. By crediting the testimony of the Teleflex employees and disregarding the Burtons’ conflicting testimony, the District Court improperly made credibility determinations, which it may not do at summary judgment.”

The Burton Court then faulted the lower court’s pretext analysis. “To the extent the District Court’s pretext analysis suggested that Burton was required to show evidence of discriminatory animus to demonstrate pretext, that suggestion is unsupported by our precedent.”

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