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BECKER v. ARCO CHEM. CO.

June 29, 1998

WILLIAM BECKER, Plaintiff,
v.
ARCO CHEMICAL COMPANY, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBRENO

MEMORANDUM

 EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.

 JUNE 29th, 1998

 Presently before the Court is a motion by defendant ARCO Chemical Company ("ARCO") for judgment as a matter of law, or in the alternative for a new trial, or in the alternative, for remittitur. For the reasons contained herein, the Court denies ARCO's motion.

 I. BACKGROUND

 The plaintiff, William P. Becker ("Becker") sued his former employer, ARCO, for age discrimination in connection with his discharge from employment. Specifically, Becker alleged in a three-count complaint that the conduct of ARCO employees violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), and constituted intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Court granted summary judgment in favor of ARCO on the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The remaining claims under the ADEA and the PHRA proceeded to trial.

 At the conclusion of an eleven-day jury trial at which twenty-one witnesses testified, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff. Becker was awarded $ 186,095 in back pay damages, $ 380,000 in front pay damages, and $ 170,000 in compensatory damages. The jury declined to award punitive damages or liquidated damages. In accordance with the verdict, the Court entered judgment in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $ 736,095.

 II. LEGAL STANDARD

 A. Judgment as a Matter of Law

 In ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), the evidence in the case must be viewed in the light most favorable to the successful party, and every reasonable inference therefrom must be drawn in that party's favor. See Fineman v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 980 F.2d 171, 190 (3d Cir. 1992); Fireman's Fund Ins. Co. v. Videfreeze Corp., 540 F.2d 1171, 1178 (3d Cir. 1976) ("The trial judge, in his review of the evidence, . . . must expose the evidence to the strongest light favorable to the party against whom the motion is made and give him the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference"). It is impermissible to question the credibility of witnesses, or to weigh conflicting evidence as would a fact-finder. See Parkway Garage, Inc. v. City of Philadelphia, 5 F.3d 685, 691 (3d Cir. 1993). Applying these precepts, a jury verdict can be displaced by judgment as a matter of law only if "the record is 'critically deficient of that minimum quantum of evidence from which the jury might reasonably afford relief.'" Dawson v. Chrysler Corp., 630 F.2d 950, 959 (3d Cir. 1980) (quoting Denneny v. Siegel, 407 F.2d 433, 439 (3d Cir. 1969)).

 B. Granting a New Trial

 The Court's discretion is also limited in determining whether to order a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. Granting a new trial "effects a denigration of the jury system and to the extent that new trials are granted the judge takes over, if he does not usurp, the prime function of the jury as the trier of the facts." Lind v. Schenley Indus., Inc., 278 F.2d 79, 90 (3d Cir. 1960) (en banc). A new trial on the basis that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence can be granted "only where a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand." Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1290 (3d Cir.1993). Where the proffered basis is trial error, "the court's inquiry . . . is twofold. It must first determine whether an error was made in the course of the trial, and then must determine whether that error was so prejudicial that refusal to grant a new trial would be inconsistent with substantial justice." Farra v. Stanley-Bostitch, Inc., 838 F. Supp. 1021, 1026 (E.D. Pa. 1993) (internal quotations omitted), aff'd without op., 31 F.3d 1171 (3d Cir. 1994); see Fed.R.Civ.P. 61.

 C. Remittitur

 With regard to remittitur, such relief is appropriate if the Court "finds that a decision of the jury is clearly unsupported and/or excessive." Spence v. Board of Educ. of Christina Sch. Dist., 806 F.2d 1198, 1201 (3d Cir. 1986); see 11 Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil § 2815 (1973). If remittitur is granted, the party against whom it is entered can accept it or can proceed to a new trial on the issue of damages.

 III. DISCUSSION

 A. Judgment as a Matter of Law

 1. Liability for age discrimination

 ARCO argues that it is entitled to judgement as a matter of law because there is not a legally sufficient basis for the jury's conclusion that ARCO intentionally discriminated against Becker because of his age. ARCO's claim must be analyzed with reference to the evidentiary framework applicable to age discrimination claims brought under the ADEA and the PHRA. See, e.g., Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Refining Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 330 (3d Cir. 1995); Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 764 (3d Cir. 1994). See also Kelly v. Drexel University, 94 F.3d 102, 105 (3d Cir. 1996) (applying same standards to PHRA claims and ADEA claims). In McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973), the Supreme Court set out a three-step analysis to be applied in pretext cases. *fn1"

 First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case by showing: (1) that he is over forty; (2) that he was qualified for the position in question; (3) that he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) that he was replaced by a sufficiently younger person to permit an inference of age discrimination. Simpson v. Kay Jewelers, 142 F.3d 639, 1998 WL 196062 at n.5 (3d Cir. 1998); Brewer, 72 F.3d at 330 (3d Cir. 1995). "Establishment of the prima facie case in effect creates a presumption that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee." St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506-07, 125 L. Ed. 2d 407, 113 S. Ct. 2742 (1993)(quoting Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254, 67 L. Ed. 2d 207, 101 S. Ct. 1089 (1981)). "To establish a presumption is to say that a finding of the predicate facts (here, the prima facie case) produces 'a required conclusion in the absence of explanation' (here, the finding of unlawful discrimination)." Id.

 Second, if the plaintiff offers sufficient proof to establish prima facie case, the employer then has the "burden of producing an explanation to rebut the prima facie case--i.e., the burden of 'producing evidence' that the adverse employment action was taken for a 'legitimate nondiscriminatory reason.'" Id. See also Simpson, 142 F.3d at 644, 1998 WL 196062 at n.5; Keller v. Orix Credit Alliance, Inc., 130 F.3d 1101, 1108 (3d Cir. 1997). It is important to note, however, although the presumption of the prima facie case shift the burden of production to the defendant "'the ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff'" St. Mary's, 509 U.S. at 507.

 Third, if the defendant satisfies its burden of production, the presumption raised by the prima facie case is rebutted and "drops from the case," *fn2" and the plaintiff is afforded an opportunity to demonstrate that the proffered reason was not the true reason for the employment decision. Id. at 507-08. Plaintiff may satisfy this burden by submitting evidence from which a factfinder could reasonably either: (1) disbelieve the employer's articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer's action. Fuentes, 32 F.3d at 763. See also Sheridan v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., 100 F.3d 1061, 1067 (3d Cir.1996) (en banc); Miller v. Cigna Corp., 47 F.3d 586, 598-99 (3d Cir. 1995). Ultimately, "the fact-finder'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." St. Mary's, 509 U.S. at 511.

 ARCO first attacks the plaintiff's prima facie case by arguing that Becker failed to show that his replacement, who was eight years younger, was sufficiently younger to permit an inference of age discrimination. In support of its argument, ARCO cites Richter v. Hook-SupeRX, Inc., a case in which the Seventh Circuit held that a seven-year age difference was not sufficient to support an inference of age discrimination. 142 F.3d 1024, 1998 WL 199769 (7th Cir. 1998). In Richter, the Seventh Circuit specifically noted that relevant precedent did not establish per se rules which would serve to exclude "cases where the gap is smaller [than one's found to be insufficient] but evidence nonetheless reveals the employer's decision to be motivated by age." Id. at 1029 (citation omitted). Thus, finding itself guided rather than bound by precedent, the Richter court looked to the facts and circumstances of the case, and determined that the seven-year age gap was not sufficient to support an inference of discrimination because there was no other evidence on the record establishing that the defendant considered the plaintiff's age to be significant. Id.

 Contrary, to ARCO's contentions, Richter clearly does not establish a per se seven-year age difference rule. Instead, it directs courts to examine the age difference in light of the facts and circumstances of the case. The caselaw generally supports this approach. The Third Circuit has declined to set up bright-line rules by stating that "there is no magical formula to measure a particular age gap and determine if it is sufficiently wide to give rise to an inference of discrimination." Barber v. CSX Distribution Servs., 68 F.3d 694, 699 (3d Cir. 1995). "Different courts have held, for instance, that a five year difference can be sufficient but that a one year difference cannot." Sempier v. Johnson & Higgins, 45 F.3d 724 (3d Cir. 1995)(citations omitted)(four-year age difference between plaintiff and replacement found sufficient when substantial portion of duties were transferred to employee who was ten years younger than plaintiff). See also Barber, 68 F.3d at 699 (eight-year difference sufficient); Healy v. New York Life Ins. Co., 860 F.2d 1209 (3d Cir. 1988)(nine-year difference sufficient); Corbin v. Southland Int'l Trucks, 25 F.3d 1545, 1550 (11th Cir. 1994) (finding evidence of pretext when a 53 year-old was treated more favorably than a 58 year-old employee). The Ninth Circuit has even held that "replacement by even an older employee will not necessarily foreclose ... proof if other direct or circumstantial evidence supports an inference of discrimination." Douglas v. Anderson, 656 F.2d 528, 533 (9th Cir. 1981). In other words, the relevant issue is whether the evidence provides a basis for a reasonable factfinder to conclude that a discriminatory animus was at play in the employer's decision. O'Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp., 517 U.S. 308, 116 S. Ct. 1307, 1310, 134 L. Ed. 2d 433 (1996). In light of Third Circuit precedent and because, unlike the plaintiff in Richter, Becker presented other evidence that ARCO's decision was motivated by age, the Court concludes that under the circumstances of this case the plaintiff succeeded in establishing that he was replaced with a sufficiently younger person to support an inference of discrimination. Therefore, Becker established a prima facie case.

 Once Becker satisfied the elements of the prima facie case, ARCO then had the burden of producing evidence that Becker was terminated for a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason. ARCO presented evidence that Becker failed to deal constructively with customer complaints and management criticism about his laboratory and its work, and cited these failures as legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for discharging Becker. This satisfied ARCO's burden of production causing the presumption of discrimination raised by the prima facie case to drop off. Once the presumption of discrimination dropped off, Becker was left to demonstrate that the proffered reason was not the true reason for the employment decision. St. Mary's, 509 U.S. at 507-08. ARCO contends that Becker failed to do so because: (1) Becker presented no direct evidence that ARCO was motivated by his age when it discharged Becker; (2) Becker failed to undermine ARCO Chemical's legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for discharging him; and (3) Becker presented insufficient circumstantial evidence to establish that age was a determinative factor in ARCO Chemical's decision to discharge Becker. The Court disagrees.

 As to ARCO's first argument, Becker is not under an obligation to present direct evidence that ARCO was motivated by Becker's age when it discharged him. The Third Circuit clearly stated, in Fuentes, 32 F.3d at 764, that a plaintiff can meet his or her burden of proof through the use of either "direct or circumstantial evidence." See also Lockhart v. Westinghouse Credit Corp., 879 F.2d 43 (3d Cir. 1989)(holding that direct evidence of discrimination is not necessary).

 As to ARCO's second and third arguments, the Court concludes that there was sufficient evidence to support either the jury's disbelief of ARCO Chemical's legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for discharging Becker or the jury's belief that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative factor in ARCO's decision to terminate Becker. In response to ARCO's claim that he failed to deal constructively with customer complaints and management criticism about his laboratory and its work as a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for discharging Becker, plaintiff introduced specific evidence casting doubt on the reason proffered by defendant for his discharge, such as evidence that: (1) while some of his performance reviews contained criticisms of plaintiff's interpersonal skills, others contained praise of his interpersonal skills; (2) some of plaintiff's supervisors, other evaluators and customers considered the plaintiff to have good interpersonal and customer relations skills; and (3) that customer complaints cited by defendant were unfounded and possibly fabricated.

 More generally, plaintiff also introduced evidence showing that: (1) that during the 23 years of his employment with ARCO, the plaintiff received at least an acceptable rating on all his performance reviews from 1970 through 1992 and the only rating the plaintiff received below acceptable was in the performance review filed in the year plaintiff was discharged; (2) that the plaintiff received regular performance bonuses including one in the year he was discharged; (3) that ARCO did not consider customer service to be the most important qualification for his position as asserted by the defendant, but that instead, technical ability was the most important qualification. Furthermore, Becker presented certain statements made by ARCO employees as circumstantial evidence of discrimination. These statements included a comment allegedly made by Becker's second-tier supervisor that a vice president of ARCO "wanted younger people in management," and statements allegedly made by the plaintiff's immediate supervisor that he was taking plaintiff "off the fast track," "knocking [Becker] down a notch" because "older guys are getting all the merit money."

 In summary, the Court concludes that the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, supports the jury's finding that ARCO intentionally discriminated against Becker based on his age. Thus, the record is not "critically deficient of that minimum quantum of evidence from which the jury might reasonably afford relief," Dawson, 630 F.2d at 959, and the Court may not disturb the jury's verdict on liability.

 2. Damages

 The jury found that ARCO discriminated against Becker and awarded Becker $ 736,095 in damages. This was comprised of $ 186,095 in back pay damages, $ 380,000 in front pay ...


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