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YOUNG v. LUKENS STEEL CO.

November 22, 1994

DONALD H. YOUNG
v.
LUKENS STEEL COMPANY and LUKENS, INC.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HERBERT J. HUTTON

 HUTTON, J.

 November 22, 1994

 I. BACKGROUND

 In this action, Donald Young alleged, among other things, that Lukens terminated his employment because of his age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). A seven day trial was held on plaintiff's ADEA claim between June 27, 1994 and July 7, 1994. After deliberating for a day, the jury found that Lukens had violated the ADEA and returned a verdict for the plaintiff in the amount of $ 477,856. The verdict consisted of an award of back pay of $ 190,339, front pay of $ 283,682, and lost pension benefits of $ 3,835. The jury also found that Lukens had not willfully violated the ADEA and thus, did not award liquidated damages.

 On October 4, 1976, Lukens hired Young to work as a supervisor in its maintenance department. While employed by Lukens, Young received several promotions and salary increases, all of which occurred after he was forty years of age. Young's last promotion was in 1987, at which time he was promoted to the position of Superintendent of Assigned Maintenance. In late 1989, however, Young was replaced as Superintendent of Assigned Maintenance by Jack Moran ("Moran"), who was thirty-six years of age at the time. Moran had been promoted by Fred Smith ("Smith"), Manager of Maintenance. Smith was subsequently replaced as Manager of Maintenance by Mark Kamon ("Kamon"), who was thirty-six years of age at the time.

 In 1991, Young, who now occupied the position of Superintendent of Trades and Crafts, reported directly to Kamon, who, in turn, reported to Smith, who then occupied the position of Vice President of Manufacturing for Lukens Steel. In September of 1991, Lukens Steel was involved in tense labor negotiations with the United Steelworkers of America and their Local 1165 ("the Union"), which represented hundreds of the company's hourly employees at the Coatesville, Pennsylvania steel plant. The negotiations concerned the parties' attempt to formulate a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the agreement that was to expire on October 1, 1991. The Union was threatening a strike. Kamon was a member of Lukens' collective bargaining committee and the Union's Vice-President, George Barrage ("Barrage"), was a member of the Union's bargaining committee.

 When it began to appear that the parties would not be able to resolve their differences in time to avoid a strike, Lukens' management determined that it would be prudent to devise and discuss contingency plans to be employed in the event of a strike. In September, 1991, Moran prepared a one-page list of contingency plans, which, along with more general strike contingency plans, were disseminated as a packet by Moran to the four Maintenance Department Superintendents reporting to him, one of whom was the plaintiff.

 At trial, Lukens contended that Young attempted to transmit these confidential strike contingency plans to the Union. According to Lukens, on September 17, 1993, Lois Miller, the Company's Industrial Relations Coordinator, who reported to Robert Miller, was routinely sorting and opening inter-office mail that she had retrieved from her mailbox when she discovered a hand-addressed inter-office envelope addressed to Barrage at the Union Hall. Upon opening the envelope, as was customary, she discovered a single-page typewritten note entitled "TWO FACES OF LUKENS MANAGEMENT," which contained disparaging remarks concerning the company's negotiations and which referenced the strike plans. According to Lukens, the envelope also contained a strike contingency plan. Lois Miller turned the envelope and its contents over to her superior, Robert Miller.

 Subsequently, Lukens' management decided to confront Young with its discovery and also decided to terminate his employment. Accordingly, on October 4, 1991, three days after the negotiations broke off and the Union went on strike, a meeting was held concerning Young. Present at the meeting were Kamon, Moran, a human resources counselor named Dale Cansler, and the plaintiff. At the meeting Young was told that he was being terminated by Lukens. The decision to terminate Young's employment was concurred by Moran and Smith and was formally approved by Smith's superior, Lukens' Chief Executive Officer, Robert Schall.

 At trial, Young flatly denied that he attempted to send the strike contingency plans to the Union. Lukens regularly uses inter-office mail to communicate with the Union. According to Young, on September 10, 1991, Mr. Robin Miller instructed him to return two grievances to Barrage through inter-office mail and he did so.

 Young was terminated five days after turning fifty-five years of age. He was replaced by Richard Robidoux, who was thirty-six years of age at the time he assumed the duties formerly held by Young.

 II. DISCUSSION

 A. Defendants' Motion For A New Trial, Or In The

 Alternative, For Judgment As A Matter Of Law

 The defendants' motion for a new trial is pursuant to Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 59(a) provides in pertinent part that in an action which has been tried to a jury, "[a] new trial may be granted to all or any of the parties and on all or part of the issues . . . for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1). Although the rule lacks specificity, it is well-settled that a court may order a new trial if the verdict was against the weight of the evidence or if the court committed a significant error of law. Maylie v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., 791 F. Supp. 477, 480 (E.D. Pa.), aff'd, 983 F.2d 1051 (3d Cir. 1992). There are, of course, other grounds that a court may use to support an order for a new trial, but the two above-mentioned grounds are the only two upon which the defendants base their motion. Id.

 1. Defendants' Claim That The Jury's Verdict Is Against The Clear Weight Of The Evidence

 It is well-settled that the Court may grant a new trial if the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Shanno v. Magee Indus. Enterprises, Inc., 856 F.2d 562, 567 (3d Cir. 1988). The decision to grant or deny a new trial is "'confided almost entirely to the . . . discretion . . . of the trial court.'" Id. (quoting Allied Chemical Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33, 36, 66 L. Ed. 2d 193, 101 S. Ct. 188 (1980)). Because the Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial, however, a jury's verdict is not to be lightly overturned on the ground that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. See Williamson v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1348 (3d Cir. 1991). A "'district court ought to grant a new trial on the basis that the verdict was against the weight of evidence only where a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand.'" Dunn v. Hovic, 1 F.3d 1362, 1364 (3d Cir. 1993)(quoting Williamson, 926 F.2d at 1352); see also Roebuck v. Drexel Univ., 852 F.2d 715, 735 (3d Cir. 1988). This burdensome standard has evolved so as "to ensure that a district court does not substitute its 'judgment of the facts and the credibility of the witnesses for that of the jury.'" Fineman v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 980 F.2d 171, 211 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Lind v. Schenley Indus., Inc., 278 F.2d 79, 90 (3d Cir.) (in banc), cert. denied, 364 U.S. 835, 5 L. Ed. 2d 60, 81 S. Ct. 58 (1960)). In reaching its determination, the Court must "view all the evidence and inferences reasonably drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the party with the verdict." Marino v. Ballestas, 749 F.2d 162, 167 (3d Cir. 1984) (quoting Chuy v. Philadelphia Eagles Football Club, 595 F.2d 1265, 1273 (3d Cir. 1979)).

 The defendants claim that the jury's finding of intentional discrimination was against the clear weight of the evidence. *fn1" Before reviewing the evidence, the relevant legal standard that the plaintiff had to fulfill must be articulated. The analytical framework applied to this case is the McDonnell-Douglas/Burdine "pretext" analysis. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973); Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 67 L. Ed. 2d 207, 101 S. Ct. 1089 (1981). In its recent decision in St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, U.S. , 113 S. Ct. 2742, 125 L. Ed. 2d 407 (1993), the Supreme Court reaffirmed and clarified the McDonnell-Douglas/Burdine three-step burden shifting formula. Under McDonnell-Douglas, the plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of age discrimination. *fn2" Hicks, 113 S. Ct. at 2747. If the plaintiff sustains his initial burden, then the burden of production shifts to the defendant to produce evidence "that the adverse employment actions were taken 'for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason.'" Id. (quoting Burdine, 450 U.S. at 254). If the defendant sustains its burden of articulating a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action taken, then the burden of production shifts back to the plaintiff and the plaintiff has the burden of proving both that the defendant's proffered justification is pretextual and that the adverse employment action was the product of unlawful intentional discrimination. Id.

 In accordance with the above decisions and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit's decisions on the ADEA, this Court instructed the jury, on the second and third steps of the McDonnell-Douglas/Burdine test (which defendants claim are erroneous), as follows:

 
DEFENDANTS' PROFFERED EXPLANATION
 
IF THE PLAINTIFF HAS ESTABLISHED ALL FOUR ELEMENTS [OF THE PRIMA FACIE CASE] BY A PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE, YOU MUST THEN DETERMINE WHETHER THE DEFENDANT, LUKENS STEEL COMPANY, HAS PRESENTED A LEGITIMATE, NON-DISCRIMINATORY REASON FOR TERMINATING THE PLAINTIFF'S EMPLOYMENT. IN DETERMINING WHETHER THE REASON GIVEN FOR LUKENS' DECISION TO DISCHARGE THE PLAINTIFF WAS, IN FACT, A LEGITIMATE NONDISCRIMINATORY REASON, YOU ARE INSTRUCTED THAT AN OTHERWISE LEGITIMATE REASON DOES NOT BECOME ILLEGITIMATE MERELY IF IT TURNS OUT THE PLAINTIFF DID NOT ENGAGE IN THE CONDUCT WHICH FORMED THE BASIS OF THE DEFENDANTS' DECISION TO DISCHARGE HIM, SO LONG AS LUKENS' DECISION MAKERS HONESTLY BELIEVED THAT THE PLAINTIFF ENGAGED IN SUCH CONDUCT.
 
IF YOU FIND THAT THE DEFENDANT HAS PRODUCED EVIDENCE OF A LEGITIMATE, NON-DISCRIMINATORY REASON FOR TERMINATING THE PLAINTIFF'S EMPLOYMENT, THEN YOU MUST CONSIDER WHETHER THE PLAINTIFF HAS SUSTAINED HIS ULTIMATE BURDEN OF PROVING THAT THE DEFENDANTS INTENTIONALLY DISCRIMINATED AGAINST THE PLAINTIFF BY DISCHARGING HIM BECAUSE OF HIS AGE. AT THIS THIRD AND FINAL STAGE OF THE ANALYSIS, THE PLAINTIFF MUST PROVE THAT THE DEFENDANT'S ARTICULATED REASON FOR DISCHARGING THE PLAINTIFF IS A MERE PRETEXT FOR AGE DISCRIMINATION.
 
IF, ON THE OTHER HAND, YOU FIND THAT THE DEFENDANTS HAVE NOT PRODUCED EVIDENCE OF, THAT IS, STATED, SOME LEGITIMATE, NONDISCRIMINATORY REASON FOR DISCHARGING THE PLAINTIFF, THEN YOU MUST FIND FOR THE PLAINTIFF.
 
PRETEXT FOR AGE DISCRIMINATION
 
UNDER THE LAW, THE PLAINTIFF MUST PROVE THAT THE EXPLANATION OFFERED BY THE DEFENDANT WAS A MERE PRETEXT FOR AGE DISCRIMINATION. THIS MEANS THAT, IN ORDER TO FIND FOR THE PLAINTIFF, YOU MUST FIND BOTH THAT: (1) THE LEGITIMATE NONDISCRIMINATORY REASON OFFERED BY THE DEFENDANT IS NOT THE TRUE REASON THE PLAINTIFF WAS DISCHARGED; AND (2) THAT AGE PLAYED A ROLE IN THE EMPLOYER'S DECISION MAKING PROCESS AND WAS A DETERMINATIVE FACTOR IN THAT PROCESS.
 
IN DETERMINING WHETHER LUKENS' LEGITIMATE NON-DISCRIMINATORY EXPLANATION FOR ITS DECISION TO DISCHARGE THE PLAINTIFF IS PRETEXTUAL, YOU MAY NOT SECOND GUESS LUKENS' BUSINESS DECISION NOR QUESTION THE MEANS IT USED TO ACHIEVE A LEGITIMATE GOAL. FURTHER, UNDER THE LAW, LUKENS HAS THE RIGHT TO TERMINATE AN EMPLOYEE'S SERVICES FOR A GOOD REASON,A BAD REASON, OR FOR NO REASON AT ALL, AS LONG AS ITS REASON FOR DISCHARGING THE PLAINTIFF IS NOT THE PLAINTIFF'S AGE.
 
HOWEVER, IF YOU FIND THAT THE REASONS OFFERED BY LUKENS FOR TERMINATING YOUNG'S EMPLOYMENT WERE NOT THE TRUE REASONS FOR HIS DISCHARGE, THEN YOU MAY, ALTHOUGH, YOU ARE NOT COMPELLED, TO INFER THAT AGE WAS A DETERMINATIVE FACTOR IN THE DECISION TO TERMINATE THE PLAINTIFF'S EMPLOYMENT. IT IS FOR YOU TO DECIDE WHETHER THE PLAINTIFF WAS DISCHARGED BECAUSE OF HIS AGE. IN OTHER WORDS, EVEN IF YOU FIND THAT THE REASONS OFFERED BY LUKENS WERE NOT THE TRUE REASONS FOR THE PLAINTIFF'S DISCHARGE, IT IS POSSIBLE THAT HE WAS DISCHARGED FOR REASONS OTHER THAN AGE. ULTIMATELY, IT IS FOR YOU TO DECIDE WHETHER AGE WAS A DETERMINATIVE FACTOR IN THE PLAINTIFF'S DISCHARGE.

 In accordance with Hicks, the jury instructions incorporated the oft-quoted language of Hicks regarding the permissible inferences a jury may draw regarding the intentional discrimination requirement of McDonnell-Douglas if it disbelieves the defendants' reasons for discharge. See, e.g., Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 763 (3d. Cir. 1994); Armbruster v. Unisys Corp., 32 F.3d 768, 783 (1994); Seman v. Coplay Cement Co., 26 F.3d 428, 433 (3d Cir. 1994). Specifically, the Supreme Court in Hicks stated:

 
The factfinder's disbelief of the reasons put forward by the defendant (particularly if disbelief is accompanied by a suspicion of mendacity) may, together with the elements of the prima facie case, suffice to show intentional discrimination. Thus, rejection of the defendant's proffered reasons, will permit the trier of fact to infer the ultimate fact of intentional discrimination.

 Hicks, 113 S. Ct. at 2742. Thus, because the jury found that the defendants' reason for discharge was a pretext, they could, but were not required to, infer that the defendants intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff.

 It is important to also note before reviewing the evidence that since the defendants do not dispute the jury's finding on the prima facie case issue, its argument that the finding of intentional discrimination was against the clear weight of the evidence is flawed because proving a prima facie, in and of itself, can be enough evidence of intentional discrimination where, as here, the jury disbelieves the defendants' proffered reasons for discharge. See Supra, p. 9-10. The Court will, however, review the evidence because it seems that the real thrust of defendants' argument is not the finding of intentional ...


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