Finds Responsibilities Were Assumed By New Computer Program, Not Younger Employee

A federal appellate court recently ruled that an employee whose job functions were replaced by a computer program had not been the victim of age discrimination. According to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, an employee who acted as an intermediary in the product design process was not replaced by the younger employee who oversaw the new streamlined system. Gortemoller v. International Furniture Marketing, Inc., No. 10-15689, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (July 20, 2011).

Factual Background

Thomas Gortemoller filed a lawsuit against International Furniture Marketing, Inc. and Standard Furniture Manufacturing Company, Inc. under the Age Discrimination in Employ-ment Act (ADEA). Gortemoller had worked in the furniture companies' product design process. His responsibilities included:

  1. Conducting research to identify new products;
  2. Creating specifications and working with designers on products;
  3. Selecting designs produced by designers;
  4. Developing and merchandising products;
  5. Traveling overseas to inspect products; and
  6. Traveling to markets to sell products and evaluate the competition.

After firing Gortemoller, the companies streamlined their product design process through the use of a web-based computer program called Design Net, which allowed salespeople and designers to communicate directly with each other. The new program also allowed customers to provide feedback directly to the salespeople and designers. Todd Evans, who had worked for the companies for eight years, was assigned to oversee the new streamlined process.

Gortemoller argued that he was the victim of discrimination because he had been replaced by Evans, who was younger. A federal judge in Alabama granted summary judgment in favor of the companies and Gortemoller appealed this ruling to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Legal Analysis

The Eleventh Circuit rejected Gortemoller's age discrimination clam, concluding that he was not replaced by a younger individual. In arriving at this conclusion, the court first noted that to establish a prima facie case of illegal bias Gortemoller must show:

  1. He was a member of the protected age group;
  2. He was subjected to an adverse employment action;
  3. He was qualified to do the job; and
  4. He was replaced by or lost his position to a younger individual.

The only disputed issue was whether Gortemoller was replaced by a younger employee.

The Eleventh Circuit found that the companies replaced their "top-down process," in which Gortemoller was an intermediary between salespeople, customers, and designers, with a decentralized process in which the three parties communicated with each other directly. The new system allowed salespeople, customers and designers to make decisions together about what and how products were made.

According to the court, Evans oversees this process but does not perform Gortemoller's former duties, which no one does under the new system. The only duty that Evans performs that "arguably resembles a duty Gortemoller used to perform," the court found, is traveling oversees to inspect products. However, Evans performed this duty before Gortemoller was fired. The court further noted that traveling "is not a duty for which Evans became responsible after Gortemoller was terminated."

In light of this evidence, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that Evans did not replace Gortemoller and that, after his termination, his responsibilities were satisfied by Design Net. Thus, the court affirmed the trial judge's decision to dismiss Gortemoller's age discrimination claim.

Practical Impact

According to Richard Carrigan, a shareholder in Ogletree Deakins' Birmingham office: "The court properly recognized the importance of changes in the work process, as a result of technology, to evaluate an age discrimination claim based on alleged replacement by a younger individual. Performance of a single duty by a younger employee was not sufficient to create a prima facie case of age discrimination, where the plaintiff had no direct evidence of discrimination and did not timely raise a `reduction in force' theory."