Miami Employer Defeats Direct Evidence on Motion for Summary Judgment

Jackson Memorial FoundationDirect evidence of discrimination is evidence that, if believed, would prove the existence of a fact without inference or presumption.  For example, in an age discrimination case, a statement by a supervisor during a termination meeting that he needs "someone younger" would likely be deemed direct evidence of age discrimination.

That was what the plaintiff in a recent case alleged her supervisor at Jackson Memorial Foundation told her during her termination meeting.  She brought suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in a Miami federal court.  Following discovery, JMF moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had overwhelming evidence that the termination was made for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons, notwithstanding the alleged direct evidence. 

U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard agreed and granted JMF's motion. "The fact that a plaintiff has established a prima facie case under the ADEA with direct evidence... does not in and of itself warrant summary judgment against an employer," wrote Judge Lenard.  "As such, the Court rejects Plaintiff’s argument that Defendant’s 'concession that [Plaintiff] has direct evidence of age discrimination is itself sufficient to create a genuine fact issue necessitating a trial.'  Rather, in the face of direct evidence, the burden then shifts to an employer to prove that the same challenged employment decision would have been made absent any discriminatory intent." 

Judge Lenard then spent three pages describing the undisputed evidence of the plaintiff's unsatisfactory work performance and conduct, which led to a decision to terminate the plaintiff in January 2006, several months before the alleged discriminatory remark was made.  "There is simply no evidence," Judge Lenard concluded, "that the decision to terminate Plaintiff in January of 2006 was motivated by anything other than [the supervisor's] dissatisfaction with Plaintiff’s work performance and conduct." 

Congratulations to defense counsel, my partners Mike Casey and Kevin Vance , on this hard-fought victory. 


Discrimination Suits Declined from 2003 to 2006. But Are They Now On the Rise?

The Justice Department issued a press release yesterday which announced that the number of civil rights cases filed in U.S. district courts declined from 40,516 to 32,865 (nearly 20 percent) between 2003 and 2006. "Civil rights claims" are defined as those that "involve allegations of discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, welfare benefits or voting rights based on an individual’s or group’s race, sex, religion, age or physical condition."

Readers of this blog will be interested to learn that, according to the press release, "[t]he growth, stabilization and decline in civil rights filings were largely attributable to employment discrimination cases which rose from 8,413 in 1990 to nearly 23,800 in 1997 and then declined to 14,353 in 2006."  You can read the DOJ's full report here

But this declining trend in employment discrimination case may be old news by now.  According to this post from the Manpower Employment Blawg, EEOC discrimination charges filed in the first quarter of its 2008 fiscal year were up 21% compared to the same period last year.  More charges generally lead to more lawsuits. 

One other point about the DOJ press release:  It notes that civil rights cases disposed of by jury trial resulted in median damage awards ($146,125) that were about two times higher than cases disposed of by bench trial ($71,500). Meanwhile, the rate at which plaintiffs won at trial "did not differ appreciably between jury and bench trials."  This supports the conventional wisdom that if you're an employee-plaintiff, you should seek a jury trial when possible. And if you're an employer, you should opt for a bench trial if the plaintiff will consent.  But, of course, plaintiffs almost never do.