Matras v. Amoco Oil Co.

Decision Date18 April 1986
Docket NumberDocket No. 73356
Citation385 N.W.2d 586,43 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 931,424 Mich. 675
PartiesEdmund J. MATRAS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. AMOCO OIL COMPANY, a foreign corporation, Defendant-Appellee. 424 Mich. 675, 385 N.W.2d 586, 43 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 931
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Stark and Gordon by Sheldon J. Stark, Mark Granzotto, Detroit, for plaintiff-appellant, Edmund J. Matras.

Peter J. Lyons, Troy, Kenneth L. Oliver, Jr., Philadelphia, Pa., for defendant-appellee, Amoco Oil Co.

LEVIN, Justice.

The issue presented is whether the Court of Appeals erred in setting aside a jury verdict on the ground that there was insufficient evidence for a reasonable person to find that age discrimination was a determining factor in the discharge of Edmund Matras. We conclude that there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable person to find that age discrimination was a determining factor, and that the Court of Appeals did err.

Amoco instituted a lay-off plan that classified workers by age, sex, and race to maintain a fixed percentage of workers in each category. The record does not show a need for other than a neutral plan blind to age, sex, and race. During his termination interview, Matras was told by an Amoco manager that he was being discharged because he was low man in the over-forty group. While Amoco contends Matras would have been discharged even if Amoco had not divided its employees into age, sex, and race categories, Amoco presented no evidence indicating how it would have evaluated its employees had it not employed the plan and, consequently, no evidence of what might have been the result under an alternative plan.

The decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the cause is remanded to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the issues raised by Amoco in the Court of Appeals that were not addressed by that Court.

I

Edmund J. Matras brought this age discrimination action under the Fair Employment Practices Act. 1

Matras was forty-one years old when he was discharged in 1975. He had been working as a territory manager for Amoco since 1963. Evaluations of his performance in his first years were quite favorable. In 1965, he was described as "a very aggressive young man who learns fast and shows great determination." In 1966, he won a sales contest because "for ten months of 1966, your efforts and team leadership have enabled you to come out on top in overall sales ranking." In 1972 and 1973, his performance evaluations took a turn for the worse. On a scale of one to six, with six being the worst, Matras received a six for 1972. This rating by Robert Johnson, Matras' supervisor for the last three months of 1972, was based on Matras' failure to achieve basic gasoline sales objectives for his territory, which had been expanded to include five new stations. Matras had received an interim rating of two for the first nine months of 1972. His 1973 performance rating was four.

In 1974, Amoco decided to reorganize and reduce its sales force. "Manpower Consolidation Guidelines" were prepared. The guidelines stated that the reorganizations would be conducted at the regional level. Sales personnel in the region would be divided into four categories: women, racial minorities, persons between the ages of forty and sixty-five, and white males under forty.

Only the last two appraisals were used in the Detroit region where Matras was employed. Matras received a score of ten. Four other employees also received a ten, but no one had worse than a ten. Two of the employees with ten were discharged. Two were retained. One of the two who was retained was a white male older than Matras. The other was a black woman, who was not listed in the over-forty category. The trial court concluded she was under forty. Within the Detroit marketing region, the reorganization resulted in the termination of twenty-seven of the 160 territory managers. Amoco did not always merely add up the scores within the groups and terminate those with the worst scores. Amoco made exceptions and apparently "skipped around."

During Matras' termination interview, Amoco's district manager told Matras "you're low man in the over age 40 group, so we are going to have to let you go." The making of this statement was not disputed.

At the close of Matras' proofs, Amoco moved for a directed verdict. In denying the motion, the trial court first alluded to the evidence of age discrimination other than the plan. This evidence included the early reference to Matras as an "aggressive young man," an unwanted party given by Johnson to celebrate Matras' fortieth birthday, his nickname among employees, Gramps, and the appearance of his age on evaluation forms. The trial court said, "if that were the only evidence of age discrimination I would direct a verdict in favor of the defendant." The court went on to say, however, "there is ... at least a prima facie showing that the plan itself, without reference to any other piece of evidence, is discriminatory on account of age." The plan was a "negative," not "an affirmative action plan." "[I]t takes three protected groups and mandates ... regardless of how they compare to the unprotected group ... that some minorities ... people 40-65 ... and women will be discharged ... to maintain their proportion of the whole." Amoco rested, although its motion for a directed verdict had been denied.

The jury found for the plaintiff and awarded him $55,000 for lost wages and $60,000 for other damages. The trial court denied Amoco's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and Matras' motion for attorney fees.

In a split decision, the Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that there was insufficient evidence to go to the jury.

II

In reviewing a trial court's failure to grant a defendant's motion for a directed verdict or a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, we examine the testimony and all legitimate inferences that may be drawn in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. 2 If reasonable jurors could honestly have reached different conclusions, the motion should have been denied. 3 If reasonable jurors could disagree, neither the trial court nor this Court has the authority to substitute its judgment for that of the jury.

In an age discrimination case, the question thus becomes whether the plaintiff has presented evidence " 'which, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, would permit a reasonable jury to find that he was discharged because of his age.' " 4

A

A jury can find that the discharge was "because of age" even if age was not the sole factor. As accurately expressed in the Michigan Standard Jury Instruction, "[age] does not have to be the only reason, or even the main reason, but it does have to be one of the reasons which made a difference in determining whether or not to [discharge] the plaintiff." 5 Another formulation would be that age is a determining factor when the unlawful adverse action would not have occurred without age discrimination. Alternative expressions of the determining factor concept are "but for causation" or "causation in fact." 6

In the instant case, the question therefore becomes whether there was sufficient evidence, when the evidence and inferences therefrom are viewed in a light most favorable to Matras, for reasonable jurors to conclude that age discrimination was a determining factor in the decision to discharge him.

B

Matras suggests that his cause could also have been submitted to the jury upon satisfaction of the burden of proof requirements articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). In McDonnell Douglas, the United States Supreme Court held that a Title VII complainant can satisfy the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case

"by showing (i) that [plaintiff] belongs to a racial minority; (ii) that he applied and was qualified for a job for which the employer was seeking applicants; (iii) that, despite his qualifications, he was rejected; and (iv) that, after his rejection, the position remained open and the employer continued to seek applicants from persons of complainant's qualifications." Id., 802, 93 S.Ct. 1824.

The McDonnell Douglas prima facie case approach has been adapted to age discrimination discharge cases by requiring the plaintiff to show "(i) he was a member of the protected class; (2) he was discharged; (3) he was qualified for the position; and (4) he was replaced by a younger person." 7

Age discrimination "may of course be proved under ordinary principles of proof by any direct or indirect evidence relevant to and sufficiently probative of the issue ... without resort to any special judicially created presumptions or inferences related to the evidence." 8 "When this kind of direct or circumstantial proof is adduced, there is no need to employ the McDonnell Douglas presumption-based scheme." 9

The inquiry is basically the same under either approach. The United States Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas stated: "The facts necessarily will vary in Title VII cases, and the specification above of the prima facie proof required from respondent is not necessarily applicable in every respect to differing factual situations." 10 It would, we believe, be "inappropriate simply to borrow and apply automatically" 11 the McDonnell Douglas standards when the "employer is making cutbacks due to economic necessity." 12 Evidence that a competent older employee was terminated, and a younger employee was retained, is insufficient standing alone to establish a prima facie case when the employer reduces his workforce because of economic necessity. The rationale behind the McDonnell Douglas formula is that its four-part test alone "eliminates the most likely legitimate causes for the employer's adverse action." 13 This formulation is incomplete in the workforce-reduction situation.

To establish a prima facie case of age discrimination when an employer lays off employees for...

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