202 F.3d 424 (1st Cir. 2000), 98-2296, Dominguez-Cruz v Suttle Caribe Inc.

Docket Nº:98-2296.
Citation:202 F.3d 424
Party Name:ALBERTO DOMINGUEZ-CRUZ and NYDIA NEGRON-RAMOS, Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. SUTTLE CARIBE, INC., Defendant, Appellee.
Case Date:February 02, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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Page 424

202 F.3d 424 (1st Cir. 2000)

ALBERTO DOMINGUEZ-CRUZ and NYDIA NEGRON-RAMOS, Plaintiffs, Appellants,

v.

SUTTLE CARIBE, INC., Defendant, Appellee.

No. 98-2296.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

February 2, 2000

Heard Nov. 3, 1999.

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO. Hon. Daniel R. Dominguez, U.S. District Judge.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Harold D. Vicente-Colon, with whom Vicente & Cuebas was on brief, for appellants.

Graciela J. Belaval, with whom Mart¡nez, Odell & Calabria was on brief, for appellee.

Before Lynch, Circuit Judge, Campbell, Senior Circuit Judge, and

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O'Toole, District Judge.[*]

LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

In this age discrimination suit brought by a plant manager whose employment was terminated when he was 55 years old, the district court entered summary judgment for the defendant, Suttle Caribe, on the recommendation of the magistrate judge. Both judges found that the plaintiff, Alberto Dominguez-Cruz, made out a prima facie case of age discrimination under the familiar McDonnell Douglas-Burdine-Hicks framework. They determined, however, that he had not overcome Suttle Caribe's articulated non-discriminatory reason for the termination with evidence sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to conclude that the termination was motivated by age discrimination.

The record shows that the employer has, at different times, articulated to varied audiences different reasons for ending the plaintiff's employment. At times, Suttle Caribe has said that the termination was not an issue of performance but was instead the result of a business restructuring plan that involved the elimination of the plant manager position. At other times, Suttle Caribe has claimed that the termination was based on the plaintiff's job performance. At still other times, Suttle Caribe has said that violations of company policy and insubordination were the reasons for the termination. In addition to the potentially inconsistent reasons the company gave for the termination, notes of a conversation between a member of the personnel department and the key decisionmaker in the plaintiff's termination include -- unusually and unfortunately for the company -- the phrases "age descrim. [sic]" and "cover up." Finally, the key decisionmaker referred to the plaintiff more than once as an "old fart" in front of two younger employees who would eventually assume many of the plaintiff's job responsibilities. One of those younger employees in turn referred to the plaintiff as "el viejo" ("the old one" or "the old man") and told another employee at least a year before the plaintiff's termination that he had been offered the plaintiff's job. While the termination of the plaintiff's employment may prove to have been innocent of age discrimination, these facts are surely enough to raise genuine issues of material fact that should be left to the jury. We reverse entry of summary judgment and remand.

I

Alberto Dominguez-Cruz began working for Suttle Caribe on October 12, 1978. He was hired to set up and manage Suttle Caribe's plant in Humacao, Puerto Rico, and he continued in the position of plant manager until his termination on September 22, 1995. He was 55 years old at the time of his termination. Although his record was not spotless, all parties agree that Dominguez-Cruz performed his job well. He successfully launched and nurtured Suttle Caribe's Puerto Rico operations and received recognition for his efforts in the form of positive performance evaluations, merit pay increases, and commendations. In fact, his immediate supervisor agreed that the plaintiff's 1993 performance evaluation characterized him as "an outstanding employee and manager[,] in general terms." In addition, Dominguez-Cruz received a merit pay increase for 1995.

In 1994, upper management at Suttle Caribe's parent company, Suttle Apparatus, began a restructuring initiative, designed to reduce costs and standardize operations by putting the "right people in the right place." Dominguez-Cruz directed this initiative at Suttle Caribe and, as a result, was responsible for terminating the employment of a number of employees in 1994. Although the company now claims that the long-term plan had always been to eliminate the plant manager position, the plaintiff testified that he was not aware

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that the restructuring initiative might result in the loss of his job.

In September 1995, Dean Ovitt, Vice President of Manufacturing for Suttle Apparatus and Dominguez-Cruz's direct supervisor as of late 1992, and Jeffrey Berg, President of Suttle Apparatus, traveled to Puerto Rico to meet with Dominguez-Cruz and to assess Suttle Caribe's operations. During this time, Dominguez-Cruz had conversations with both Berg and Ovitt pertaining to his concerns with some of the proposed changes to the organizational chart. In addition, Berg and Ovitt discussed with Dominguez- Cruz some of their complaints regarding his handling of certain situations, including an accident involving a company vehicle, the awarding of a contract to an employee, and the filing of unemployment paperwork associated with an employee's leave of absence. On September 22, 1995, Ovitt, with the consent of Berg and Curtis Sampson, the Chief Executive Officer and President of the Board of Directors, informed Dominguez-Cruz that his employment was being terminated. Ovitt told Dominguez-Cruz that the plant manager position was being eliminated as a part of the organization's restructuring plan.

Dominguez-Cruz and his wife filed suit against Suttle Caribe in federal district court in May 1996, alleging age discrimination under both federal and Puerto Rican law and claiming violations of various other provisions of Puerto Rican law. They sought damages and a preliminary injunction reinstating Dominguez-Cruz to his position and enjoining Suttle Caribe from discriminating or taking any retaliatory action against Dominguez-Cruz. On September 23, 1997, Suttle Caribe filed for summary judgment, arguing that Dominguez-Cruz had failed to make out a prima facie case of age discrimination and that he had failed to rebut its proffered non- discriminatory reasons for the termination. The motion was referred to a magistrate judge, who recommended granting summary judgment to Suttle Caribe. The district court agreed, concluding that although Dominguez-Cruz had put forth a prima facie case of age discrimination, he had failed to rebut Suttle Caribe's non-discriminatory reasons for the dismissal. Summary judgment was entered for Suttle Caribe and supplemental jurisdiction over the Puerto Rican law claims was declined. Dominguez-Cruz appealed to this court.

II

Our review of the entry of summary judgment is de novo. See Thomas v. Eastman Kodak Co., 183 F.3d 38, 47 (1st Cir. 1999).

The plaintiff offers two approaches to this case.2 First, he says that the ageist statements allegedly made by Ovitt and another individual and the notes taken by a personnel manager in a meeting with Ovitt constitute "direct evidence" of age discrimination. Because he produced direct evidence sufficient to sustain his burden, Dominguez-Cruz says, summary judgment should have been denied without resort to the McDonnell Douglas-Burdine-Hicks burden-shifting framework. The district court rejected this argument, concluding that this evidence was not "direct evidence" but instead constituted "stray remarks"...

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