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Kearns v. Bristol Township

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 10, 2015



MARK A. KEARNEY, District Judge.

A former employee alleging age discrimination caused her termination must show some evidence creating disputed issues of material fact as to whether her former employer's invidious discriminatory purpose more likely than not was a motivating or determinative cause of her termination. As Plaintiff attempts to do, the former employee can create issues of fact defeating summary judgment and proceed to trial if she shows her employer treated similarly situated but sufficiently younger "comparators" in a more favorable manner through less severe treatment for more egregious conduct.

We now address an age discrimination claim by a former Township Human Resources Manager, admittedly disagreeable with a new Township Administrator who terminated her for challenging his directions and hiring seasonal personnel without his approval. Although the new Administrator may not have liked her for some time and he allegedly stated that the new Township Board wanted to replace Plaintiff and all managers immediately, the Township did not terminate her until eighteen (18) months after the new Administrator began working and only after she hired seasonal "summer" workers and paid them without his approval.

A trained human resources professional, she elected here not to invalidate the facts underlying the Township's stated "failure of performance" reasons for her termination. Instead, she attempts to prove the Township's reasons were pretext by citing to comparators hired by the new Township Administrator allegedly treated more favorably with less severe treatment for more egregious conduct.

Contrary to the Township's arguments, she states a prima facie case. But absent any challenge to the Township's stated reasons as being false, her reliance on the inapposite two comparators does not meet her burden of showing competent evidence that the Township's proffered reasons for firing her are merely pretext for discriminatory animus. We grant the Township's motion for summary judgment and dismiss Plaintiffs case.


Plaintiff Paula Kearns ("Kearns") is sixty-four years old. (ECF Doc. No. 22, Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts ("SOF"), ¶ 2.) Defendant Bristol Township ("Township") hired Kearns as its full-time Human Resources ("HR") Manager on November 16, 2010, serving under former Township Manager Jeff Bartlett ("Bartlett"). (Id. ¶¶ 3-4.)

In January 2012, a new Township administration removed Bartlett as Township Manager replacing him with William McCauley. (Id. at D-0010) Still the full-time HR Manager, Kearns became concerned with her job security when Defendant installed McCauley as Township Manager. (Id. ) Most likely adding to these fears, McCauley told Kearns and all department heads the Township board had instructed him to terminate all current managers and start anew. (Def.'s SOF, ¶ 6.) However, McCauley delayed terminating any department heads until he had evaluated their work. (Id. )

From January 2012 until Kearns ultimately left the Township, she and McCauley disagreed regarding "procedures or how things should be run or what he wanted done compared to the way [Kearns] thought was the right way to do something." (Def.'s App., D-0027.) By way of example, Kearns testified they disagreed about whether a new employee hired to televise the council meetings could be classified as an independent contractor. (Id. at D-0038-39.) Kearns compiled a memorandum detailing all the reasons why she felt the employee could not be classified as an independent contractor. (Id. at D-0039.) McCauley nevertheless directed Kearns to hire the person as an independent contractor. (Id. ) Kearns characterized McCauley's direction as "illegal or otherwise improper." (ECF Doc. No. 25-2, Pl's Resp. to Def.'s SOF, ¶ 7.)

Township also claims Kearns failed to "follow a management directive" and perform background checks on the seasonal help. (Id. at ¶ 4.) Further, Kearns hired the seasonal employees without obtaining McCauley's approval beforehand. (Id. ) Moreover, Kearns authorized payroll payments to these seasonal employees without obtaining McCauley's approval beforehand. (Id. ) McCauley stated that he became dissatisfied with Kearns' work and ultimately chose to terminate her employment when she did not return to work after having an "outburst" directed towards McCauley. (Def.'s SOF, ¶¶ 11, 13.)

In June 2013, McCauley told to begin looking for a new job because she failed to perform the required background investigations on hired seasonal workers and then paid the seasonal workers without his approval. (Def.'s App., D-0022.) Kearns offered to leave at the meeting but McCauley would not accept her resignation. (Id at D-0096.) Kearns told McCauley he "does not ever thank anyone for doing a good job and that she has done everything he has asked of her, even if she does not agree with it." (Id. ) Apparently, Kearns raised her voice during this episode. (Id. at D-0046.) A few days later, McCauley told Kearns her employment was over due to her "outburst" in the previous meeting. (Id. at D-0046.) McCauley gave Kearns the option to resign and receive certain benefits. (Id. at D-0096.) McCauley told Kearns to take the Friday off and let him know Monday what she decided. (Id. ) Kearns returned to the office on Monday and cleaned out her desk without speaking with McCauley. (Id. at D-0051.)


Kearns pleads one cause of action pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq. The ADEA prohibits unlawful employment practices taken because of an employee's age. 29 U.S.C. § 623(a). "[A] plaintiff must show age discrimination was the but-for' cause of the adverse action" taken by the employer. Kargbo v. Philadelphia Corp. for Aging, 16 F.Supp. 3d 512, 521 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (quoting Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs. Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009)). As Kearns provides no direct evidence of discrimination, the Court's analysis is governed by the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis.[1] Burton v. Teleflex, Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 425-26 (citing Smith, 589 F.3d at 691).

To establish a prima facie case, Kearns must demonstrate: "(1) she is forty years of age or older; (2) the defendant took an adverse employment action against her; (3) she was qualified for the position in question; and (4) she was ultimately replaced by another employee who was sufficiently younger to support an inference of discriminatory animus." Id. at 426 (citation omitted). At summary judgment, "the evidence must be sufficient to convince a reasonable factfinder to find all of the elements of [the] ...

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