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MCGOUGH v. BETHENERGY MINES

September 27, 1993

JAMES J. McGOUGH and ROBERT J. WOLFE, Plaintiffs
v.
BETHENERGY MINES, INC., et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: D. BROOKS SMITH

 SMITH, District J.

 These matters are before the Court on defendant Bethenergy Mines, Inc.'s (Bethenergy) motion for summary judgment. docket no. 25 at C. A. No. 92-22J. As originally filed, plaintiffs James L. McGough (McGough) and Robert J. Wolfe (Wolfe) submitted separate complaints, at C. A. No. 92-22J and C. A. No. 92-364J respectively, asserting causes of action under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et. seq., the parallel Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), 43 P.S. § 951 et seq., the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq., and common law theories, against their former employer Bethenergy and several other related entities. Because the matters presented identical legal issues and substantially the same factual issues the two actions were consolidated. During the course of pretrial proceedings, the claims other than age discrimination under ADEA, and defendants other than Bethenergy, were dismissed from the litigation, docket nos. 14, 34, 35. The sole question presented by defendant's motion for summary judgment is whether plaintiffs have shown that there is a disputed issue of fact concerning defendant's asserted reason for discharging them.

  I.

 I have recently described the legal framework for analyzing ADEA claims at the summary judgment stage in Naas v. Westinghouse Electric Corp., 818 F. Supp. 874, 876-77 (W.D.Pa. 1993):

 
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) requires the entry of summary judgment ". . . if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law." "The requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2509-10, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (emphasis in original). An issue of fact is "genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury might return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247, 106 S. Ct. at 2409-15; Equimark Commercial Finance Co. v. C.I.T. Financial Services Corp., 812 F.2d 141, 144 (3d Cir.1987). The presence or absence of any plausible motive to engage in conduct is relevant to whether a genuine issue of fact exists within the meaning of Rule 56(e). Matsushita Elec. Ind. Co. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 597, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 1361-62, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986).
 
Once the moving party has satisfied its burden of identifying evidence which demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the non-moving party is required to go beyond the pleadings by way of affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). When Rule 56(e) shifts the burden of proof to the non-moving party, that party must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case which it bears the burden of proving at trial. Equimark, supra at 144.

 * * *

 
The ADEA proscribes employers from failing to hire, discharging, or "otherwise discriminating against any individual . . . because of such individual's age," 29 U.S.C. § 623(1) so long as he or she is within the statutorily protected class of individuals who are at least 40 years of age. 29 U.S.C. § 631(a). To prevail in a disparate treatment action, an ADEA "plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that age was a determinative factor in the employer's decision." Billet v. Cigna Corp., 940 F.2d 812, 816 (3d Cir. 1991) (citation omitted). In theory, this ultimate burden of proving intentional age discrimination remains with the plaintiff at all times. Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253, 101 S. Ct. 1089, 1093-94, 67 L. Ed. 2d 207 (1981); Duffy v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 738 F.2d 1393, 1395 (3d Cir. 1984), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1087, 83 L. Ed. 2d 702, 105 S. Ct. 592 (1984).
 
Under the familiar burden-shifting rules of proof established by courts "to ease the evidentiary burdens on employment discrimination plaintiffs," Thornbrough v. Columbus and Greenville R. Co., 760 F.2d 633, 638 (5th Cir. 1985), the plaintiff must first demonstrate what has been termed a "prima facie case." This means that in a reduction in force case, such as the instant action, the plaintiff must show that he (1) is a member of the protected class, (2) was discharged from a job (3) for which he was qualified, and (4) was replaced by or treated less favorably than another employee not in the protected class. Maxfield v. Sinclair Int'l, 766 F.2d 788, 793 (3d Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1057, 106 S. Ct. 796, 88 L. Ed. 2d 773 (1986); Massarsky v. General Motors Corp., 706 F.2d 111, 118 (3d Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 937, 104 S. Ct. 348, 78 L. Ed. 2d 314 (1983). Once established, the plaintiff's prima facie case raises an inference of intentional discrimination by the defendant. Furnco v. Construction Corp. v. Waters, 438 U.S. 567, 576, 98 S. Ct. 2943, 2949, 57 L. Ed. 2d 957 (1978). However, if the plaintiff fails "to limn a prima facie case, the inference of discrimination never arises, and the employer's motion for summary judgment will be granted." Dodge v. Susquehanna Univ., 785 F. Supp. 502, 505 (M.D. Pa. 1992) (quoting Mesnick v. Gen. Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816, 824 (1st Cir. 1991), cert. denied, U.S. , 112 S. Ct. 2965, 119 L. Ed. 2d 586 (1992)).
 
If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of age discrimination, the defendant then has the burden of producing evidence tending to prove that its action was motivated by some "legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason." Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253, 101 S. Ct. at 1093-94. If the defendant can articulate a nondiscriminatory reason, "the presumption raised by the prima facie case is rebutted, and the factual inquiry proceeds to a new level of specificity." Id. at 255, 101 S. Ct. at 1094-95.
 
In order to avoid summary judgment, the plaintiff must establish "by competent evidence," Ezold v. Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen, 983 F.2d 509 (3d Cir. 1992), "that the employer's proffered explanation is subject to factual dispute." Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256, 101 S. Ct. at 1095. The plaintiff may do so "by means of indirect proof that the employer's reasons are pretextual without presenting evidence specifically relating to ape." Chipollini v. Spencer Gifts, Inc., 814 F.2d 893, 898 (3d Cir.) (emphasis added), cert. dismissed 483 U.S. 1052, 108 S. Ct. 26, 97 L. Ed. 2d 815 (1987).
 
(footnotes omitted)

 As the Supreme Court has recently clarified in St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks, U.S. , 125 L. Ed. 2d 407, 113 S. Ct. 2742 (1993), plaintiff must under the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973) burden-shifting scheme raise a question of fact that the pretextual reasons were in fact a coverup for an illegally discriminatory decision. St. Mary's Honor Center, 125 L. Ed. 2d at 423, quoting McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 805. The cases in this circuit to the contrary, see Naas, 818 F. Supp. at 877-78, are thereby implicitly overruled. Even prior to St. Mary's Honor Center, however, plaintiff was required at the analysis of pretext stage to do more than raise a quibble over the procedural regularity of the defendant's actions. Dolence v. U.S. National Bank, 797 F. Supp. 423 (W.D.Pa.), aff'd w/o op., 975 F.2d 1549 (3d Cir.1992).

 II.

 In these matters, Bethenergy has conceded that Wolfe and McGough were qualified for the jobs from which they were discharged and have satisfactorily established a prima facie case by showing that some persons younger than them were retained. Bethenergy's Brief at 21. It is also not disputed that Bethenergy has asserted a legitimate basis for the discharge of Wolfe and McGough. It is necessary therefore to determine whether there is a basis for a finding by a reasonable jury that Bethenergy's reduction in force was a pretext for discrimination against plaintiffs.

 James McGough was born on October 29, 1945, and began working for Bethenergy on October 22, 1970. Robert Wolfe was born on February 13, 1944, and began working for Bethenergy on March 4, 1970. McGough was laid off on October 23, 1990, at age 44. Wolfe was laid off on December 23, 1990, at age 46. Both plaintiffs had worked for Bethenergy for twenty years, at first as members of the United Mine Workers covered by the National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement. Both had moved to salaried non-union jobs and occupied the position of Section Foreman at the time of their layoffs.

 Bethenergy currently maintains only one local mine, Mine 33, and one coal preparation plant in Ebensburg, Cambria County. Mine 33 operated in two "seams," the "B Seam" and the "C-Prime Seam," which are separate underground production areas with separate work crews and supervisory personnel. In August, 1990, Bethenergy announced that it would curtail production at Mine 33, resulting in the elimination of both hourly union and nonunion section foreman positions.

 In preparation for the layoff of foremen, Richard Stickler, the mine manager of Mine 33, requested the superintendents of each seam, shift foremen, and general mine foremen to rank all section foremen, taking into account overall performance, considering such things as production, safety, compliance with laws, and company regulations, as well as other performance factors. (Stickler Dep. Ex. 2; Stickler Affidavit P 4,5; Dubreucq Dep. at p. 12; Merritts Affidavit P 3,4). Some of those factors, such as initiative and leadership, were also factors reflected in Bethenergy's annual performance appraisals. See Plaintiffs' Exh. 5.

 Peter Merritts, the B Seam Superintendent, and Robert Dubreucq, the C Prime Seam Superintendent, carried out Stickler's request to rank the foremen as follows: the section foremen in each seam were ranked by their superintendent, their shift foreman and their general foreman. Each assigned the number 1 to the section foreman whom they would retain if they could only retain one foreman, number 2 to the person they would retain if they could keep only one additional foreman, and so on, until each foreman was ranked. (Stickler Dep. at p.21, 72-73, 75, 81; Merritts Dep. at p. 27, 32-33, 37, 41; Dubreucq Dep. at p. 13-14, 17, 24, 26, 30-31) The rankers were told not to confer with one another while ranking their subordinates. (Stickler Dep. at p. 82-83; Dubreucq Dep. at p. 30-31; Radebach Dep. at p.53)

 Additionally, the mine engineer also ranked the B seam foremen on the basis of each foreman's most recent score on the Company's Performance Management System, which was a numerical measurement of a foreman's performance against certain goals in various areas, such as production and safety. (Merritts Dep. at p.47-48.)

 Merritts and Dubreucq prepared an overall ranking for their respective seams by totalling the numbers for each foreman and arranging them in order of lowest to highest. (Merritts Affidavit P 7; DuBreucq Affidavit P 8.) Merritts and Dubreucq then separately performed an overall ranking, dovetailing the results of each seam. The person deemed better would be given the number 1 ranking. (Dubreucq Dep. at p.36-37.) During this combined ranking, the rankers did not change the results of the prior individual seam rankings. (Dubreucq Affidavit P 9; Merritts Affidavit P 8.) The superintendents continued down the list until they each had developed a combined overall ranking of the foremen from both seams. (DuBreucq Dep. at p. 36-37; Merritts Affidavit P9.)

 Finally, Merritts and Dubreucq mathematically tallied their separate overall rankings into one final combined overall ranking. In cases of a tie, length of service was deemed the determining factor. (Dubreucq Affidavit P 10; Merritts Affidavit P 9.) McGough was ranked 49th out of 56 foremen; Wolfe was 42nd. See Stickler Affidavit P 7 & Ex. A.)

 On September 30, 1990, Stickler's plan was to retain 40 foremen and lay off those ranked 41 and higher. (Stickler Affidavit P 9.) However, because two of the foremen who were ranked in the top 40 were out on long-term absences, both the foreman who ranked 41, as well as Wolfe, were retained. *fn1" (Stickler Affidavit P 10.)

 On December 23, 1990, Wolfe was laid off when the next 14 foremen from the original ranking were laid off. (Stickler Affidavit PP 14-15.)

 Plaintiffs acknowledge that they have no facts or evidence that either their rankings or their layoffs were based on consideration of age, except for their own subjective beliefs and the beliefs of employees with whom they had worked that they were better foremen than some of the younger foremen retained. As plaintiff Wolfe stated in his deposition:

 
Q. What facts or evidence do you have to prove that age played a role in your selection for layoff?
 
A. Just--I have my ...

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