The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently affirmed the District of Puerto Rico’s ruling that a plaintiff’s subjective beliefs are insufficient to show pretext for discrimination. In Arroyo-Audifred v. Verizon Wireless, Inc., the First Circuit found that Verizon had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its decision not to promote the plaintiff and that a manager’s yawn during an interview was insufficient evidence of age animus.
Dennis Arroyo-Audifred alleged that Verizon wrongfully failed to promote him in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Verizon countered that it promoted younger employees over Arroyo because he lacked professional maturity and confidence, and the employees who were promoted were better suited for the positions. Arroyo asserted several allegations to support his claim that Verizon’s stated legitimate reasons constituted a mere pretext to mask age discrimination.
First, Arroyo argued that the manager who interviewed him yawned during his interview and that he believed the yawn indicated that his answers did not matter because the decision had already been made to promote a younger person. While the First Circuit agreed that yawning “could make an interview awkward,” the Court could not “see how an involuntary yawn evinces a hidden discriminatory animus any more than a sneeze or a cough.” Next, Arroyo argued that his interviewer stated that “[t]his position is like stepping in a train station, sometimes the doors open, and sometimes they don’t.” Arroyo interpreted this statement to mean that the position he sought was already closed to him. The Court, however, refused to infer a discriminatory animus from such a vague statement. The First Circuit found that courts are required to draw only reasonable inferences in a plaintiff’s favor, and imputing an ulterior motive to yawns and ambiguous comments based on Arroyo’s subjective beliefs is not reasonable.
Finally, Arroyo argued that the fact that his human resources “certification score” was the highest of all candidates constituted evidence of discrimination. The First Circuit disagreed. Verizon testified that the human resources department used “certification scores” merely as an internal tool to establish that candidates met the minimum job requirements and that the department had no further role in the hiring process. Arroyo failed to counter this testimony, contending instead that the credibility of Verizon’s witness was for the jury to determine. The First Circuit found this contention inadequate to show pretext because there was no evidence to suggest that Verizon’s explanation was false.
This decision demonstrates the First Circuit’s refusal to impute a discriminatory animus into conduct based on the subjective beliefs of a disgruntled employee. It illustrates that courts will draw only reasonable inferences in a plaintiff’s favor, and an employee’s subjective and unsubstantiated interpretation of an employer’s conduct will not suffice to defeat an employer’s motion for summary judgment.