The First Circuit recently decided a Massachusetts state law age discrimination case that provides employers with several important reminders. In Woodward v. Emulex, the court affirmed a district court decision granting summary judgment for the defendant on a plaintiff’s age discrimination claim and also affirmed the district court’s rulings on two discovery motions.
The plaintiff, Frank Woodward, was a sales account manager for defendant Emulex Corporation, a California-based technology company. Though plaintiff and his team outperformed sales goals and received praise for their work for several years, the team’s revenues eventually began to decline and, in 2009, Emulex terminated plaintiff’s employment. Plaintiff, 55 years old at the time of his termination, brought suit, alleging that the company’s explanation for his termination—i.e., his team’s declining revenues—was merely a pretext for age discrimination.
Plaintiff argued that his supervisor’s directive to “re-energize” his sales team was a critique of the age of the team members and constituted direct evidence of discrimination. The court rejected this argument based on the context in which the comment was made. The comment was made after the defendant had decided to cut the team from five employees to two, and there was no plan to reformulate the team with younger employees. The court explained that even if the comment referred to the age of the team, such an isolated remark cannot establish that the employer’s articulated rationale is a pretext for discrimination. While the court’s decision regarding isolated remarks reinforces the fact that such comments, without more, typically will not be sufficient to establish discriminatory animus, the decision nevertheless should serve as a reminder to employers that providing quality training to managers remains essential to avoiding litigation in the first place.
The court also rejected plaintiff’s other arguments. It concluded that plaintiff could not identify any similarly situated younger employees whom Emulex retained, in part because plaintiff was the only employee working from a remote office in Massachusetts—an arrangement that entailed administrative costs not attributable to other employees. Plaintiff also contended that defendant’s business strategy had hastened the revenue decline that led to the termination of plaintiff’s employment. The court rejected this argument because unwise business decisions do not establish a pretext for discrimination.
Also worth noting is the court’s decision on two discovery motions. First, the district court required Emulex to respond to an interrogatory seeking information about 21 named employees, but it denied plaintiff’s motion to compel a response to the same interrogatory with respect to broader categories of unnamed employees, and it denied plaintiff’s motion to compel defendant to produce documents concerning the same topic. Noting the deferential standard of review, the First Circuit affirmed because the document request was duplicative of the interrogatory and because the unnamed employees likely were not good comparators to plaintiff. The court also affirmed the district court’s quashing of several deposition notices that plaintiff served at the last available moment and made difficult to schedule. These decisions highlight the importance of carefully drafting discovery requests and paying close attention to deadlines and scheduling issues.