Sorba v. Pennsylvania Drilling Co., Inc.

Decision Date18 June 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-3688,86-3688
Citation821 F.2d 200
Parties44 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. 54, 43 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 37,158 William SORBA, Appellant, v. PENNSYLVANIA DRILLING COMPANY, INC.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Steven R. Wolf (argued), Law Firm of Michael E. Kusturiss, Canonsburg, Pa., for appellant.

Richard B. Sandow (argued), Jones, Gregg, Creehan and Gerace, Pittsburgh, Pa., for appellee.

Before GIBBONS, Chief Judge, MANSMANN, Circuit Judge, and KATZ, District Judge *.

OPINION OF THE COURT

MANSMANN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal raises once again issues most recently addressed by us in Chippolini v. Spencer Gifts, 814 F.2d 893 (3d Cir.1987), regarding the appropriateness of summary judgment for the defendant employer in employment discrimination cases where the plaintiff has produced evidence to establish a prima facie case pursuant to McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). We held in Chipollini that to defeat a summary judgment motion based only on an employer's proffered evidence of a nondiscriminatory animus, an ADEA plaintiff's evidence need only permit a reasonable inference that the employer's proffered explanation for the discharge is unworthy of credence.

We find that the record before us contains "evidence of inconsistencies and implausibilities in the employer's proffered reasons for discharge (which) reasonably could support an inference that the employer did not act for (those) nondiscriminatory reasons." Id. at 900. Since the district court incorrectly required that the ADEA plaintiff's evidence establish a direct inference that the defendant discharged him because of his age, we will reverse the entry of summary judgment for the defendant employer.

I.

After 27 years of employment as a driller with Pennsylvania Drilling Company, William Sorba was discharged at the age of 54. Sorba avers in his deposition that younger drillers were retained and that, after Sorba's termination, younger drillers were called back from layoff, rehired or promoted from helper to driller.

Sorba brought suit in district court alleging a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. Sec. 621 et seq. (1932) (as amended) contending that his age was a factor in the employer's decision to discharge him. Pennsylvania Drilling answered that Sorba had been dismissed for unsatisfactory performance on his last three jobs between 1981 and April 18, 1983 the date of his discharge. After discovery, the employer moved for summary judgment and the district judge granted the motion. The court found that the employer had articulated valid non-discriminatory reasons for Sorba's discharge and that Sorba's factual allegations and evidentiary proffers did not present a triable issue of fact. Sorba appealed.

The district court order was entered on October 21, 1986. 648 F.Supp. 292. During the pendency of this appeal, we filed our opinion in Chipollini in which we explained that an ADEA plaintiff need not produce direct evidence of age discrimination in order to resist a motion for summary judgment based on the defendant employer's proffer of a non-discriminatory reason for the plaintiff's discharge. 814 F.2d at 894. Because this is a recurring area of confusion, we now reiterate much of what we said in Chipollini concerning the interrelationship of the shifting burden of production in discrimination cases with the burden of the employer as movant for summary judgment.

II.

Under the ADEA, a plaintiff must prove that age was a determinative factor in the defendant employer's decision to dismiss the employee. See e.g., Duffy v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp. 738 F.2d 1393, 1395 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1087, 105 S.Ct. 592, 83 L.Ed.2d 702 (1984). A plaintiff may, of course, prove his case by direct evidence. However, in the absence of direct evidence a plaintiff may establish a prima facie case indirectly by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the employee (1) belongs to a protected class; (2) was qualified for the position; (3) was dismissed despite being qualified; and (4) ultimately was replaced by a person sufficiently younger to permit an inference of age discrimination. See Maxfield v. Sinclair International, 766 F.2d 788, 793 (3d Cir.1985), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 796, 88 L.Ed.2d 773 (1986).

If the plaintiff succeeds in proving a prima facie case, the burden of production then shifts to the defendant to articulate some legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the discharge. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). Should the defendant carry this burden, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the proffered reasons were not the employer's true reasons. Id.

In addition to establishing a prima facie case by indirect proof, an ADEA plaintiff can prevail by means of indirect proof that the employer's reasons are pretextual without presenting evidence specifically relating to age. Chipollini, 814 F.2d at 898. "[W]hen all legitimate reasons for rejecting an (employee) have been eliminated as possible reasons for the employer's actions, it is more likely than not the employer, who we generally assume acts only with some reason, based his decision on an impermissible consideration such as (age)." Furnco Construction Corp. v. Waters, 438 U.S. 567, 577, 98 S.Ct. 2943, 2950, 57 L.Ed.2d 957 (1978) (emphasis in original).

III.

Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

The ultimate burden of proof at trial will remain with Sorba, who must convince the factfinder that it is more likely than not that his age was a determinative factor in Pennsylvania Drilling's decision to terminate him. See e.g. Duffy v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 738 F.2d at 1395. It is clear that the employer will be able to "articulate" a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Sorba's dismissal. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 803, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 1824, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). Therefore Sorba's trial burden will include the requirement either to discredit the employer's proffered reasons or to prove by direct evidence that his age was a factor in the decision to dismiss him. Id.

Nonetheless, the burden of persuasion on summary judgment remains unalterably with Pennsylvania Drilling as movant. The employer must persuade the court that even if all of the inferences which could reasonably be drawn from the evidentiary materials of record were viewed in the light most favorable to Sorba, no reasonable jury could find in his favor.

"[T]o meet its burden on summary judgment, the defendant employer must show that the plaintiff will be unable to introduce either direct evidence of a purpose to discriminate, or indirect evidence of that purpose by showing that the proffered reason is subject to factual dispute." Chipollini, 814 F.2d at 899. Where, as here, a plaintiff has offered no direct evidence of discriminatory motive, questions regarding summary judgment on the issue of intent are subsumed under the inquiry into employer pretext. Id. at 898. If an employee introduces "evidence of inconsistencies and implausibilities in the employer's proffered reasons for discharge (which) reasonably could support an inference that the employer did not act for non-discriminatory reasons," id. at 900. The district court may not grant an employer's motion for summary judgment.

When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the judge's role "is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The existence of a factual dispute between the parties will defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment only if the dispute is "genuine" and the fact is "material". Id. 106 S.Ct. at 2510.

Thus where the factual dispute concerns employer motive, clearly a material issue in an ADEA case, the problem is to determine whether the dispute is genuine, that is, "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Id. This inquiry "necessarily implicates the substantive evidentiary standard of proof that would apply at the trial on the merits." Id. at 2512. In an ADEA case, the plaintiff must prove his case by a preponderance of the evidence. Duffy v. Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 738 F.2d 1393 (3d Cir.1984), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1087, 105 S.Ct. 542, 83 L.Ed.2d 702 (1984). Thus, where the employer has produced evidence of a non-discriminatory motive for the employee's dismissal, the appropriate summary judgment question is whether the evidence in the record could support a reasonable jury finding either that the plaintiff has shown age discrimination directly or that the plaintiff has shown that the employer's proffered nondiscriminatory reason is unworthy of credence. Chipollini, 814 F.2d at 898.

Our review is plenary. We must apply the same test the district court should have used initially to determine whether there is a genuine issue as to any material fact. Goodman v. Mead Johnson & Co., 534 F.2d 566, 573 (3d Cir.1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1038, 97 S.Ct. 732, 50 L.Ed.2d 748 (1977).

IV.

It is undisputed that Sorba is able to introduce evidence to support a prima facie case of age discrimination under the ADEA. Pennsylvania Drilling claims Sorba was discharged for poor performance and has proffered evidence of unsatisfactory results on...

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