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Feburary 9, 2015

COURT DECIDED AGE DISCRIMINATION CASE SHOULD PROCEED TO TRIAL BECAUSE OF FACTUAL INCONSISTENCIES IN WHO ACTUALLY REPLACED THE TERMINATED EMPLOYEE AND THE SUPERVISOR WHO MADE THE TERMINATION DECISION AS WELL AS THE EMPLOYER’S FAILURE TO FOLLOW ITS PROGRESSIVE DISCIPLINARY POLICY.

In a recent decision, the Southern District of Texas, Corpus Christi Division, decided that there was enough evidence for an age discrimination case to proceed to the jury and denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment where there were discrepancies in the facts as to whether the person who replaced the terminated employee was outside the protected class (ie. over 40 years of age), the employer’s failure to follow its progressive discipline policy and the employer’s inability to accurately identify who made the termination decision.

In Gutierrez v. City of Corpus Christi, the City of Corpus Christi, filed a motion for summary judgment after Armando Gutierrez, a 55 year-old employee filed an age discrimination case against it after he was terminated from his position as a professional engineer. When he was terminated for alleged poor performance in 2012, Mr. Gutierrez claimed he had never been reprimanded or disciplined over his four-year tenure with the City. The City on the other hand claimed he was terminated for his poor attitude and work performance in the two departments he worked in. In considering the City’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court determined that there were too many facts in dispute and the case needed to proceed to trial.

In denying the City of Corpus Christi’s motion for summary judgment on Gutierrez’s claim for age discrimination, the Court first looked at whether Gutierrez as the plaintiff was able to meet the prima facie elements of an
age discrimination case under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). Under the ADEA, to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination, the plaintiff must establish he is (1) within the protected class (ie. over 40 years old); (2) qualified for the position, (3) suffered an adverse employment decision and (4) was either replaced by someone younger, replaced by someone outside the protected class or otherwise discharged because of his age. In this case, the dispute centered around the fourth element of the prima facie case because the City of Corpus Christi argued that Gutierrez was replaced by someone who was 52 years old.

When the Court looked deeper into the facts it found discrepancies with whether the position filled by the 52 year old was in fact Gutierrez’ position prior to his
termination. The Court stated that “it is difficult to determine who actually replaced Plaintiff, whether it be the person hired with the job classification number of Plaintiff’s position in the Engineering department or the persons hired who completed Plaintiff’s actual job duties…” The Court concluded that since there was a dispute as to the fourth element of the prima facie case, Gutierrez was able to satisfy the prima facie case of age discrimination for the purposes of summary judgment.

As is often the case in age discrimination cases, the City of Corpus argued the Gutierrez was not fired for age discrimination but was instead fired for poor performance. Because the City of Corpus provided this non-discriminatory reason for Gutierrez’s termination, he was required to present evidence that that reason was merely a pretext for discrimination. Gutierrez presented evidence that all of the supervisors involved in his termination gave conflicting testimony as to who decided to terminate him. For example, one supervisor stated that the Director of Development Services was the primary decision maker in Gutierrez’ termination while that Director testified that he was not involved in the termination and it was in fact the Director of Engineering Services that made the decision. The Court pointed out that the City of Corpus Christi’s “difficulty in identifying who was involved in the decision to terminate [Gutierrez] casts doubt on the explanation.” The Court also negatively viewed the fact that the City did not follow it progressive disciplinary policy, which was in place when Gutierrez was terminated.

In light of all the discrepancies in the facts in this age discrimination case, the Court decided that summary judgment was not appropriate and Gutierrez should be able to have his day in court and proceed with a trial on the merits.

Gutierrez v. City of Corpus Christi, No. 2:13-CV-359, 2015 WL 150445 (S.D. Texas, Jan. 12, 2015).