Age Discrimination Claim, Based on Pre-Termination Age-Related Remarks, Survives Summary Judgment

In Conahan v. Medquest Ltd., et al, 20-cv-1325 (LJL), 2022 WL 16748585 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 7, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims of age discrimination asserted under the New York State and City Human Rights Laws.

From the decision:

The Second Circuit has stated that stray-age related remarks may raise an inference of discriminatory motive where they “(1) [were] made repeatedly, (2) drew a direct link between [discriminatory] stereotypes and the adverse employment decision, and (3) were made by supervisors who played a substantial role in the decision to terminate.” Courts also look to “when the remark was made in relation to the employment decision at issue.”

Considering these factors, Plaintiff has met her “minimal burden” of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination based on age. The remarks at issue were allegedly made just prior to Plaintiff’s termination and there is evidence that Plaintiff’s termination flowed directly from the meeting at which those remarks were allegedly made. Plaintiff and Inzunza’s meeting (in which Inzunza made the alleged remarks) took place on Thursday, August 1, 2019 and Stone called Plaintiff the next day stating that he wanted to talk to her about what happened but would wait until he got back from vacation. Inzunza and Stone then went on vacation. During the vacation, Inzunza and Stone discussed Plaintiff’s termination, and Stone returned from that vacation a few days early in order to catch Plaintiff in the office and to terminate her employment. While Defendants present evidence that the decision to terminate Plaintiff’s employment stemmed from Plaintiff’s behavior at that August 1, 2019 meeting and was unrelated to any discriminatory comments that Inzunza may have made at the meeting, a reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff was terminated as a result of the age-related views allegedly expressed by Inzunza at the meeting with Plaintiff based on: (i) the close nexus between the meeting at which the alleged discriminatory remarks took place and Plaintiff’s termination, (ii) Inzunza’s relationship with Stone and the evidence that the two discussed Plaintiff’s termination while they were on vacation, and (iii) Stone’s announcement to Plaintiff that she was terminated immediately after that vacation (and apparently without any intervening discussion between Stone and any other employee about Plaintiff or any intervening conduct by Plaintiff).

Plaintiff has also proffered evidence that the age-related remarks were made more than once: Not only did Plaintiff testify that Inzunza told her that she was “too old to commute to commute to New York,” Inzunza also wrote in her summary of the meeting that she told Plaintiff that “if she felt too tired and didn’t want to be bothered with learning new systems,” she could leave the company. These statements could also be interpreted as drawing a direct link between discriminatory stereotypes regarding Plaintiff’s age (i.e., that her opposition to the “new systems” was based on her age and that she was “too old to commute”) and the adverse employment decision ultimately made—i.e., Plaintiff’s termination. Although the first statement could be read merely as expressing the view that the new systems were intended to help Plaintiff perform her job, “there is just enough ambiguity in [that] statement[ ]—given the particular facts of this case, and viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party” to raise the alternative inference that Inzunza believed that Plaintiff was too old to perform her job properly and therefore should leave the company. Furthermore, while Inzunza was not the person who actually terminated Plaintiff’s employment, a reasonable jury could find that Inzunza—who was the wife of Stone, went on vacation with him directly prior to Stone’s decision to terminate Plaintiff, and, according to Plaintiff, claimed to be Stone’s “memory and his mind,” Dkt. No. 73-2 at 61—“played a substantial role in the decision to terminate” Plaintiff’s employment.

Defendants have also introduced evidence, which if taken as true, would permit the conclusion that there was a legitimate nondiscriminatory basis for Plaintiff’s termination. In particular, Defendants have introduced evidence that Plaintiff had problematic and confrontational interactions with employees over the years, was counseled about them on numerous occasions, and was warned that similar behavior would result in her termination. Those confrontations culminated in the confrontation with Inzunza the week prior to her termination, which Defendants claim resulted in Defendants’ decision to terminate Plaintiff’s employment. Taking this evidence as true, Defendants have met their burden of at the second step of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.

Nonetheless, Plaintiff “raises several arguments as to why a jury could conclude, by a preponderance of the evidence, that this reason was pretextual.” Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Inzunza’s comments about Plaintiff being “too tired” to learn new systems and “too old” for her commute were made only a week prior to Plaintiff’s termination and came out of nowhere: Stone testified that Plaintiff had never said anything to him about not being able to handle her commute and had stated that she would be a “team player” with respect to upgrading the company’s statements. Moreover, the evidence suggested that Stone viewed Plaintiff—despite any confrontational interactions she had with employees over the years—as a valuable employee up until her termination: Plaintiff recalled “glowing, stellar, annual reviews” from Stone and Stone himself testified about Plaintiff’s performance: “I think she did a lot of different jobs and, for the most part, I think and I believe she was doing a good job.” Construing this evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, a reasonable juror could find that something changed after the meeting with Inzunza and Inzunza’s vacation with Stone, specifically that Stone and Inzunza formed a negative view about Plaintiff based on her age and that the allegedly discriminatory views expressed by Inzunza—and not Plaintiff’s job performance—were the real reason why Plaintiff’s employment was terminated.

[Cleaned up.]

The court concluded by holding that the jury could conclude that defendants’ proffered reason of Plaintiff’s confrontational manner was merely pretext, and therefore, denied their motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s age-based discrimination claim.

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