In a case highlighting the challenges to plaintiffs in showing individual discrimination in a reduction in force (RIF), a large company providing consulting services to the transportation industry prevailed over the age discrimination claims of a 57-year-old female employee that it terminated as part of a restructuring. The employee, who worked as a high-level management consultant concerning trade to North Africa and the Middle East, claimed that the company discriminated against her in the reduction of force based on her age and gender. Nevertheless, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted summary judgment to the employer on all of the employee’s claims. The case is Barnett v. PA Consulting Group, Inc., Civil Action No. 04-1245 (BJR) (D. DC, Oct. 14, 2011).
The plaintiff claimed that her employer violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”) in terminating her employment. It was undisputed that the plaintiff was a tireless employee who worked hard, produced great work, and covered her costs. Given her exceptional performance, the plaintiff asserted that her termination could not have been motivated by anything other than discriminatory motives. The company, in turn, offered a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the termination, stating that the plaintiff’s consulting services did not fit with the transportation group’s focus, as shown by her own complaints during her employment.
On summary judgment, the Court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim because she failed to demonstrate that the company’s proffered non-discriminatory reason for terminating her was a pretext and not the actual reason for termination. The plaintiff asserted, inter alia, that the company lied about which executive made the decision to terminate her and that the company retained younger male employees who had lower performance scores than her. In rejecting these assertions, the Court ruled that the plaintiff presented no evidence to support them, and could not avoid summary judgment with unsupported allegations.
The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she was better qualified than the younger men, stating that this argument was irrelevant. In support of her argument, the plaintiff sought to rely on a D.C. Circuit Court decision (Aka v. Washington Hospital Center, 156 F.3d 1284 (D.C. Cir. 1998)) which held that a fact-finder may legitimately infer discriminatory motives by an employer in promoting a less-qualified employee over another because employers do not normally select less-qualified candidates. However, the Court pointed out that Aka was inapplicable because the company’s termination decision was based entirely on the nature of Plaintiff’s practice, and had nothing to do with performance factors. The Court held that it would defer to the company’s decision regarding which non-discriminatory qualities it relies on when reducing its force because it is not the Court’s role to second-guess the company’s business judgment.
In short, the Court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims because the company produced sufficient evidence of a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for termination, while the plaintiff did not present evidence that the company’s reason was a mere pretext. This case again underlines the importance of complete and accurate record-keeping by businesses.