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4th Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment In Age Case

Published by on November 19, 2009

In an unpublished opinion, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendant employer on a discrimination claim brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”).  The case is Inman v. Klockner Pentaplast of America, Inc.  More after the break. The plaintiff, Dean Inman, was fired from his job […]

In an unpublished opinion, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendant employer on a discrimination claim brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”).  The case is Inman v. Klockner Pentaplast of America, Inc.  More after the break.

The plaintiff, Dean Inman, was fired from his job as Vice President of Technology at Klockner Pentaplast of America, Inc. (“KPA”), where he had worked for 17 years.  At the time of his termination, Inman was 58 years old.  Two years before his termination, Inman had received some less than favorable performance evaluations from his supervisor.  The supervisor had also requested Inman to create a development plan for his department, which Inman had refused to do.  According to the supervisor, in the months leading up to his termination, Inman had exhibited “unprofessional” conduct, including expressing displeasure to the human resources department about having to attend a mandatory training session and having to sign a non-compete agreement that everyone in his department was required to sign.  The supervisor also alleged that Inman had complained to a co-worker about the company’s decision to enact a salary freeze and then lied to the supervisor and said that he was in favor of the decision.

During the termination meeting, the supervisor allegedly told Inman that KPA need a “more energetic person” for such a leadership position, and that Inman “did not fit the ‘profile’ or ‘model’ ” of what was needed “for the appearance of a revitalized company.”  Inman was replaced by the former Vice President of Operations, who was 45 years old.

Inman filed a lawsuit against KPA in federal district court alleging age discrimination, among other things.  The district court granted KPA’s motion for summary judgment on the age discrimination claim.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit addressed two issues:  whether Inman was meeting KPA’s legitimate expectations under the third prong of the prima facie case of age discrimination, and whether Inman had presented sufficient evidence of pretext. 

KPA argued that Inman’s failure to create the development plan for his department, his refusal to support the salary freeze, and his unprofessional behavior towards the human resources department supported the conclusion that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Inman had been meeting KPA’s legitimate expectations.  The court disagreed, stating that the fact that Inman had received bonuses every year, and had been praised by his supervisor just a few weeks before his termination, was some evidence that Inman had been meeting KPA’s legitimate expectations. 

The court also found that Inman had presented evidence that, if accepted by the jury, would contradict KPA’s main reason for the termination – that Inman was fired because he lied about supporting the salary freeze.  The court found relevant to the pretext determination the comments that the supervisor had made at the termination meeting about Inman not meeting the “model” or “profile” of the “energetic person” that KPA needed.  The court also pointed to some notes that the supervisor had made during a meeting with an outside consultant hired to review KPA’s operations.  During the meeting, the consultant suggested that KPA form a task force that consisted of “young, energetic, future people.”  The supervisor wrote down notes on a napkin during the meeting, including the phrase “young, energ[etic].”  KPA argued that the notes were merely what the consultant was saying, and that the consultant was not the decisionmaker with regards to Inman’s employment.  The court rejected that argument, stating that even though the consultant was not the decisionmaker, the supervisor was, and the supervisor had found the consultant’s reference to “young employees” significant enough to write it down.  The court held that it was up to the jury to determine what meaning the supervisor attached to those words and whether he adopted the consultant’s suggestions.

Read more about this case on VLW.

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