235 F.3d 219 (5th Cir. 2000), 99-41390, Russell v McKinney Hospital Venture

Docket Nº:99-41390
Citation:235 F.3d 219
Party Name:SANDRA RUSSELL, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. MCKINNEY HOSPITAL VENTURE, a joint venture of Parkway Hospital, Inc. and NTMC Venture, Inc., d/b/a Columbia Medical Center of McKinney, d/b/a Columbia Homecare of Page 220 McKinney; NTMC VENTURE, INC., d/b/a Columbia Medical Center of McKinney; COLUMBIA HOMECARE OF MCKINNEY, Defendants - Appellees
Case Date:December 06, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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235 F.3d 219 (5th Cir. 2000)

SANDRA RUSSELL, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

MCKINNEY HOSPITAL VENTURE, a joint venture of Parkway Hospital, Inc. and NTMC Venture, Inc., d/b/a Columbia Medical Center of McKinney, d/b/a Columbia Homecare of

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McKinney; NTMC VENTURE, INC., d/b/a Columbia Medical Center of McKinney; COLUMBIA HOMECARE OF MCKINNEY, Defendants - Appellees

No. 99-41390

IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS, FIFTH CIRCUIT

December 6, 2000

Page 221

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas

Before KING, Chief Judge, WIENER, Circuit Judge, and LYNN,[*]

District Judge.

KING, Chief Judge:

Plaintiff-Appellant Sandra Russell appeals from the district court's order granting Defendants-Appellees judgment as a matter of law in this case brought under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. For the following reasons, we AFFIRM in part and REVERSE in part.

I. BACKGROUND

On October 9, 1995, fifty-four year old Sandra Russell began employment for Columbia Homecare of McKinney ("Homecare") as the Director of Clinical Services. Carol Jacobsen, age fifty-three and Russell's immediate supervisor, also began working at Homecare on the same day. In January 1996, Steve Ciulla, age twenty-eight, was hired as the Director of Operations, a position that was to be at the same level as Russell's position and one that reported to Jacobsen as well. Ciulla was the son of the Chief Executive Officer of Columbia Medical Center of McKinney ("Medical Center"), the parent company of Homecare.

On January 27, 1997, Russell was terminated from her employment. Subsequently, on April 23, 1998, Russell filed suit in federal district court1 charging defendants with violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1) (1999).2 A jury trial commenced on July 12, 1999. At the close of Russell's case in full, defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The district court responded that it would take the motion under advisement and would render a ruling after the jury returned its verdict. On July 15, 1999, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Russell, granting her $25,000 in back pay. The jury further found that defendants had willfully violated the ADEA, but did not assess any liquidated damages. Defendants renewed their motion for judgment as a matter of law, which the district court granted on November 1, 1999. Russell timely appeals.

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II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review de novo a district court's grant of a motion for judgment as a matter of law, applying the same standard as the district court. See Price v. Marathon Cheese Corp., 119 F.3d 330, 333 (5th Cir. 1997). Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate if "there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue." Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a). Reviewing all of the evidence in the record, we "must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and [we] may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 120 S.Ct. 2097, 2110 (2000); see also Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374-75 (5th Cir. 1969) (en banc) (stating that it is the function of the jury to weigh conflicting evidence and inferences and determine the credibility to be accorded to the witnesses). In so doing, we "must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe." Reeves, 120 S.Ct. at 2110.

III. SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE TO SUSTAIN THE JURY VERDICT

To determine whether judgment as a matter of law against Russell was appropriate, we must ascertain if sufficient evidence existed for a reasonable jury to find age discrimination. This inquiry is driven by the Supreme Court's most recent statement on the standard for granting judgment as a matter of law, Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 120 S.Ct. 2097 (2000). We thus set out this analytical framework, and then analyze whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain the jury verdict in this case.

A. Analytical Framework

A plaintiff can prove a claim of intentional discrimination by either direct or circumstantial evidence. Absent direct evidence of discriminatory intent, as is typically the case, proof via circumstantial evidence is assembled using the framework set forth in the seminal case of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).3 "First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination." Reeves, 120 S.Ct. at 2106. Second, the employer must respond with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision. See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. This burden on the employer is only one of production, not persuasion, involving no credibility assessments. See Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 255-56 (1981). Third, if the employer carries its burden, the "mandatory inference of discrimination" created by the plaintiff's prima facie case, Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256 n.10, "drops out of the picture" and the fact finder must "decide the ultimate question: whether [the] plaintiff has proven [intentional discrimination]," St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 511-12 (1993).

In making this showing, the plaintiff can rely on evidence that the employer's reasons were a pretext for unlawful discrimination. See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 804. "[T]he trier of fact may still consider the evidence establishing the plaintiff's prima facie case 'and inferences properly drawn therefrom . . . on the issue of whether the defendant's

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explanation is pretextual.'" Reeves, 120 S.Ct. at 2106 (quoting Burdine, 450 U.S. at 255 n.10). However, as the Court stated in Hicks, a showing of pretext does not automatically entitle an employee to a judgment as a matter of law. See 509 U.S. at 524. It is "not enough . . . to disbelieve the employer; the [fact finder] must believe the plaintiff's explanation of intentional discrimination." Id. at 519 (emphasis in original). This statement in Hicks caused confusion as to whether intentional discrimination could be inferred from a showing of pretext. See Reeves, 120 S.Ct. at 2104-05 (describing the circuit conflict resulting from the confusion).

The Supreme Court resolved the circuit split by repudiating the "pretext-plus" approach, thus overruling our decision below, Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 197 F.3d 688 (5th Cir. 1999). See id. at 2108. A unanimous Court held that this circuit had "misconceived the evidentiary burden borne by plaintiffs who attempt to prove intentional discrimination through indirect evidence." Id. "Thus, a plaintiff's prima facie case, combined with sufficient evidence to find that the employer's asserted justification is false, may permit the trier of fact to conclude that the employee unlawfully discriminated." Id. at 2109.

The Court further stated that, more likely than not, a showing of pretext will lead to an inference of discrimination: "Moreover, once the employer's justification has been eliminated, discrimination may well be the most likely alternative explanation, especially since the employer is in the best position to put forth the actual reason for its decision." Id. at 2108-09.

The Court also cautioned that there may be instances, although rare, where a showing of pretext would not be sufficient to infer discrimination. Such a situation would occur "if the record conclusively revealed some other, nondiscriminatory reason for the employer's decision, or if the plaintiff created only a weak issue of fact as to whether the employer's reason was untrue and there was abundant and uncontroverted independent evidence that no discrimination occurred." Id. at 2109.4

With this framework in mind, we proceed to analyze Russell's evidence supporting her ADEA claim.

B. Application of the Analytical Framework

Under the McDonnell Douglas circumstantial evidence framework, to make out a prima facie case of age discrimination under the ADEA, a plaintiff must establish:

(1) [she] was discharged; (2) [she] was qualified for [her] position; (3) [she] was within the protected class; and (4) [she] was replaced by someone outside the protected class, someone younger, or

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was otherwise discharged because of age.

Brown v. CSC Logic, Inc., 82 F.3d 651, 654 (5th Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). It is undisputed that Russell satisfied her burden to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.5 In response, defendants put forth the need for a new management style as their legitimate reason for terminating Russell. Russell disputed this proffered justification, contending that the real reason for her termination was Ciulla's age-based animus.

While evidence beyond that of the prima facie case and pretext clearly is not required, see supra Part III.A, Russell provided additional evidence of discrimination. Because we review the entire record when considering a motion for a judgment as a matter of law, see Reeves, 120 S.Ct. at 2110, we first examine Russell's evidence of pretext and then her additional evidence of discrimination.

1. Evidence of Pretext

Defendants' proffered reason for Russell's termination was that "a change in management style" was needed. We find that Russell provided sufficient evidence to create a jury issue that this justification was pretextual.

At trial, Russell demonstrated that she had received a very favorable evaluation from her supervisor Jacobsen only two months prior to her termination. On that evaluation, Russell was noted as "exceptional" or "exceeding expectations" in all the relevant categories but one, in which she received a "meets standards" rating.6 Jacobsen conceded that Russell was not given a formal oral warning, a written warning, or a "corrective action plan," all of which are required by Homecare's own...

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