98 F.3d 670 (1st Cir. 1996), 95-1877, Mulero-Rodriguez v. Ponte, Inc.

Docket Nº:95-1877.
Citation:98 F.3d 670
Party Name:Gilberto MULERO-RODR
Case Date:October 28, 1996
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

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98 F.3d 670 (1st Cir. 1996)

Gilberto MULERO-RODRÖGUEZ, Gladys Ortiz-Margarys,

Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

PONTE, INC. and Haydee Sabines, Widow of Ponte, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 95-1877.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

October 28, 1996

Heard Feb. 27, 1996.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Kevin G. Little, Fresno, CA, with whom David Efr¢n and Law Offices David Efr¢n, Rio Piedras, PR, were on brief, for appellants.

Jay A. Garc¡a-Gregory, with whom Juan C. Guzman-Rodr¡guez and Fiddler Gonzalez & Rodr¡guez, San Juan, PR, were on brief, for appellees.

Before TORRUELLA, Chief Judge, COFFIN, Senior Circuit Judge, and CYR, Circuit Judge.

TORRUELLA, Chief Judge.

Appellants-Plaintiffs Gilberto Mulero-Rodr¡guez ("Mulero") and his spouse, Gladys Ortiz-Margarys, appeal the district court's grant of summary judgment to defendants Ponte, Inc. and Haydee Sabines ("Sabines") in this wrongful termination case for their suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the "ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 626(c), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. The Muleros also presented claims under Puerto Rico Law 100, 29 L.P.R.A. § 185(a), Law 80, 29 L.P.R.A. § 146, and the Puerto Rico Civil Code for breach of contract and tortious conduct provisions. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

BACKGROUND

As always, in reviewing the district court's grant of summary judgment, we present the facts, drawn here from the district court opinion and order, see Mulero Rodriguez v. Ponte, Inc., 891 F.Supp. 680, 682-83 (D.P.R.1995), in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, see, e.g., Woodman v. Haemonetics Corp., 51 F.3d 1087, 1089 n. 1 (1st Cir.1995). Appellee Ponte, Inc. is a corporation whose principal place of business is in Puerto Rico and is incorporated there. It is owned by members of two families of Cuban descent, the Pontes and the Sabines. Appellant Mulero worked for Ponte, Inc. for 29 years, starting as a driver and eventually attaining the positions of general manager and director. By January of 1993, he bore substantial responsibility for the day-to-day operations of Ponte, Inc., and received compensation of some $150,000 per year.

Mar¡a Luisa Ponte ("Ponte"), one of the owners and officers of Ponte, Inc., began to work at the company in late 1991. She soon moved to restrict Mulero's authority, limiting his ability to hire and fire employees by requiring her approval for personnel actions. During the course of 1992, Ponte and Mulero clashed over a series of issues, relating to Mulero's job performance, employee bonuses, control over inventory, and Mulero's interaction with other employees. Mulero's employment was terminated on January 26, 1993, by Sabines and her son-in-law Jorge Redondo ("Redondo"), who was not a Ponte, Inc., employee. Mulero was 47 years old. The appellants sued, alleging discrimination under the ADEA and Title VII, and the district court granted summary judgment for Ponte, Inc., and Sabines. This appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

  1. Title VII and ADEA Claims

    In the summary judgment context, we review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, and "are obliged to review the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and to draw all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor." LeBlanc v. Great American Ins. Co., 6 F.3d 836, 841 (1st Cir.1993), cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1018, 114 S.Ct. 1398, 128 L.Ed.2d 72 (1994); see, e.g., Woods v. Friction Materials, Inc., 30 F.3d 255, 259 (1st Cir.1994). "An inference is reasonable only if it can be drawn from the evidence without resort to speculation." Frieze v. Boatmen's Bank of Belton, 950 F.2d 538, 541 (8th Cir.1991).

    We will uphold summary judgment where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to the interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a

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    judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). We are not restricted to the scope of the district court's logic, but can affirm on "any independently sufficient ground." Mesnick v. General Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816, 822 (1st Cir.1991), cert. denied, 504 U.S. 985, 112 S.Ct. 2965, 119 L.Ed.2d 586 (1992). Of course,

    [n]ot every factual controversy bars a litigant's access to the Rule 56 anodyne:

    [T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.

    Medina-Munoz v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir.1990) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). The nonmovant bears the burden of setting forth "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). An issue is genuine if it "must be decided at trial because the evidence, viewed in the light most flattering to the nonmovant, would permit a rational factfinder to resolve the issue in favor of either party." Medina-Munoz, 896 F.2d at 8 (citation omitted).

    In the absence of direct evidence of discrimination, we apply the familiar burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973), to ADEA and Title VII claims. See Ayala-Gerena v. Bristol Myers-Squibb Co., 95 F.3d 86, 96 (1st Cir.1996) (noting that "direct evidence does not include stray remarks in the workplace"); see, e.g., Pages-Cahue v. Iberia L¡neas Aereas de Espana, 82 F.3d 533, 536-37 (1st Cir.1996); Woods, 30 F.3d at 259. First, the plaintiffs must establish a prima facie case that Mulero (1) was within a protected class; (2) met Ponte, Inc.'s legitimate performance expectations; (3) was adversely affected; and (4) was replaced by another with similar skills and qualifications. See Smith v. Stratus Computer, Inc., 40 F.3d 11, 15 (1st Cir.1994), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 115 S.Ct. 1958, 131 L.Ed.2d 850 (1995); Vega v. Kodak Caribbean, Ltd., 3 F.3d 476, 479 (1st Cir.1993). Once they do so, the burden shifts to Ponte, Inc., to produce a valid and nondiscriminatory reason for the dismissal. In the final stage, the burden shifts back to the plaintiffs to show that Ponte, Inc.'s stated reason for Mulero's dismissal was false and but a pretext for discrimination. See, e.g., Woods, 30 F.3d at 260; Medina-Munoz, 896 F.2d at 8. In this summary judgment context, plaintiffs, as the nonmovants, must show evidence sufficient for a factfinder to reasonably conclude that Ponte, Inc.'s decision to terminate was driven by a discriminatory animus. See LeBlanc, 6 F.3d at 843. "Thus, a district court's grant of summary judgment to an employer will be upheld if the record is devoid of adequate direct or circumstantial evidence of the employer's discriminatory intent." Pages-Cahue, 82 F.3d at 537.

    1. The Prima Facie Case

      The parties agree that only the second element of the prima facie case, i.e., that Mulero met Ponte, Inc.'s legitimate job expectations, is in dispute. Finding little support in the depositions cited, and noting that the record did not include affirmative evidence of satisfactory performance, such as evaluations or appraisals, the district court nonetheless assumed that the plaintiffs satisfied the second element, on the basis of Mulero's long history at Ponte, Inc. We take the district court's reasoning a step further and find that plaintiffs did, indeed, fulfill the second element.

      Mulero was at Ponte, Inc., for almost thirty years. During that time, he rose from being a driver to holding the posts of general manager and director, with the attendant promotions and pay raises. We have previously found that such evidence supports an inference that an employee's job performance was adequate to meet an employer's needs, even when the evidence did not extend all the way to the time of the discharge. See Keisling v. SER-Jobs for Progress, Inc., 19 F.3d 755, 760 (1st Cir.1994); see also Woodman, 51 F.3d at 1092; Stratus Computer, 40 F.3d at 15 n. 4; Woods, 30 F.3d at 261. We do so again here, and so find that plaintiffs established their prima facie case.

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    2. Ponte, Inc.'s Reason for Dismissal

      The parties do not contest that defendants have articulated a non-discriminatory reason for Mulero's discharge, namely, that he "made poor hiring decisions; argued repeatedly with, threatened and vandalized the automobile belonging to, the company's accountant, Luis Caceiro [ ("Caceiro") ]; inadequately controlled inventory; permitted his children inappropriate access to the company's resources; and misallocated bonus payments." Mulero Rodr¡guez, 891 F.Supp. at 685. We therefore turn to the final step of the McDonnell Douglas framework.

    3. Pretext for Discrimination

      In their effort to demonstrate that Ponte, Inc.'s stated reason for Mulero's dismissal was a pretext for discrimination, the plaintiffs weave a tale of discriminatory comments, pretextual business decisions, and favoritism. Finding little substance in the story, the district court held that the plaintiffs did not meet their burden of demonstrating pretext and unlawful animus, in either the ADEA or the Title VII claim. We now weigh the evidence for each in turn, "focus[ing] on the ultimate question, [and] scrapping the burden-shifting framework in favor of considering the evidence as a whole." Mesnick, 950 F.2d at 827. Like the district court, we find that much of the Muleros' evidence merely "reflects the existence of differences of opinion between Mulero and others at the company with respect to a wide variety of issues affecting the company." Mulero Rodr¡guez, 891 F.Supp. at 686. However, because we find more content in the plaintiffs' case than did the district court, our review of the record leads us to...

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