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Lawrence v. National Westminster Bank New Jersey

October 15, 1996

ALBERT L. LAWRENCE

v.

NATIONAL WESTMINSTER BANK NEW JERSEY

ALBERT LAWRENCE,

APPELLANT



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey

(D.C. Civil Action No. 94-cv-01368)

Before: SCIRICA and ROTH, Circuit Judges and O'NEILL, District Judge *fn*

SCIRICA, Circuit Judge.

Argued June 5, 1996

Filed October 15, 1996)

OPINION OF THE COURT

Albert Lawrence appeals the grant of summary judgment to National Westminster Bank in his suit alleging age and handicap discrimination and denial of severance benefits. We will affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district court.

I.

Albert Lawrence was hired by Citizens First National Bank of New Jersey, now National Westminster Bank, New Jersey, *fn1 in October 1979 as Vice President/Chief Investment Officer of the Trust Department. In 1985 he was promoted to the position of Senior Vice President/Chief Investment Officer.

On June 30, 1987, Lawrence was injured in a car accident and sustained severe back injuries. As a result he wears a back brace. Lawrence alleges he suffers from chronic pain and discomfort because of the injury. Nevertheless, after the accident, Lawrence returned to work and resumed his position with the bank.

In early 1992, Allan Nichols became bank Chairman. Nichols developed new goals and business objectives for the bank, and specifically for the Trust Department. Although the parties' accounts of what ensued over the next one and one half years differ, the bank contends Lawrence's level of performance substantially deteriorated. On September 3, 1993, at the age of sixty, Lawrence was terminated for sub-standard performance and "behavior not befitting a manager." Lawrence disputes he was fired for "cause." He contends this explanation was pretextual, and that he was fired because of his age and/or his physical condition. Lawrence filed suit in the United States District Court for New Jersey alleging age and handicap discrimination under New Jersey and federal laws. *fn2

As we have noted, the district court granted National Westminster Bank's motion for summary judgment. Lawrence v. National Westminster Bank, New Jersey, No. 94-1368, 1995 WL 506043 (D. N.J. Aug. 16, 1995). Lawrence now appeals.

II.

We have jurisdiction over the final order of the district court under 28 U.S.C. Section(s) 1291. "When we review a grant of summary judgment, we apply the same test as the district court should have applied initially." Sempier v. Johnson & Higgins, 45 F.3d 724, 727 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ____, 115 S.Ct. 2611, 132 L.Ed.2d 854 (1995). A court may grant summary judgment when "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). "When the nonmoving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, the moving party may meet its burden on summary judgment by showing that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to carry its burden of persuasion at trial." See Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Refining Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 329 (3d Cir. 1995); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). A nonmoving party creates a genuine issue of material fact when it provides evidence "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "In reviewing the record, the court must give the nonmoving party the benefit of all reasonable inferences." Brewer, 72 F.3d at 330.

III.

A.

Lawrence alleges National Westminster Bank violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. Section(s) 621 et seq., and New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination ("LAD"), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq., by dismissing him because of his age.

Age discrimination claims under the ADEA and LAD are governed by the same standards and allocation of burdens of proof. See Retter v. Georgia Gulf Corp., 755 F. Supp. 637, 638 (D. N.J. 1991), aff'd, 975 F.2d 1551 (3d Cir. 1992); see also Waldron v. SL Industries, Inc., 56 F.3d 491, 503-04 (3d Cir. 1995). Lawrence's age discrimination claims are grounded not on direct evidence but on pretext. We have adopted the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis for age discrimination cases brought under a pretext theory. See Sempier, 45 F.3d at 728; Chipollini v. Spencer Gifts, Inc., 814 F.2d 893, 897 (3d Cir.), cert. dismissed, 483 U.S. 1052 (1987). Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff must first present a prima facie case by establishing that (1) he is over 40 years old, (2) he is qualified for the position in question, (3) he suffered from an adverse employment decision, and (4) his replacement was sufficiently younger to permit a reasonable inference of age discrimination. Sempier, 45 F.3d at 728; Chipollini, 814 F.2d at 897. *fn3 Once a plaintiff has satisfied the prime facie standard, the burden shifts to defendant to articulate a "legitimate nondiscriminatory" reason for the adverse employment decision. Should the defendant successfully carry its burden, the plaintiff then "has the opportunity to demonstrate that the employer's stated reasons were not its true reasons but were a pretext for discrimination." Sempier, 45 F.3d at 728. At this stage, the plaintiff may defeat a summary judgment motion either: (1) by discrediting the proffered reasons for termination, directly or circumstantially, or (2) by adducing evidence that discrimination was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the adverse action. Sempier, 45 F.3d at 731; see also Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 764 (3d Cir. 1994) ("We hold that, to . . . [defeat a motion for summary judgment], the plaintiff generally must submit evidence which: l) casts sufficient doubt upon each of the legitimate reasons proffered by the defendant so that a factfinder could reasonably conclude that each reason was a fabrication; or 2) allows the factfinder to infer that discrimination was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the adverse employment action"). *fn4

Here, the parties' disagreement revolves around the "pretext" prong of the discrimination claim. The district court found Lawrence established a prima facie case of age discrimination, but determined "plaintiff failed to offer any evidence that suggests defendant's nondiscriminatory reason for terminating his employment is unworthy of belief." The court then granted summary judgment in favor of National Westminster Bank.

B.

After reviewing the record, we believe Lawrence cast sufficient doubt on National Westminster Bank's proffered reasons for his termination to create a material issue of fact. See Fuentes, 32 F.3d at 762. National Westminster Bank asserts it dismissed Lawrence because of poor job performance. According to the bank, Lawrence's managerial and customer-relations skills declined dramatically in the year before his ...


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