United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
again review a supervisor's email previewing a decision
to fire a long-time employee with alleged performance issues
before the employer can line up its legitimate business
reasons. When challenged for employment discrimination based
on the fired employee's national origin or age, the
employer must scramble to overcome its supervisor's email
evincing a judgment before gathering facts. These
inconsistent grounds for firing the employee create issues of
fact as to whether the later defined business reasons are
pretext for discrimination. When the employee adduces a
prima facie case of national origin or age
discrimination combined with the supervisor's preliminary
determination documented in perpetuity in an email contrary
to its business reasons, we must allow our jury to evaluate
the credibility of the employer's stated business
reasons. In the accompanying Order, we deny the
employer's motion for summary judgment as to the
discrimination claims but dismiss hostile work environment
Undisputed Material Facts.
of Pittsburgh Physicians (“Physicians”) provides
healthcare services through physician practice groups in
various medical specialties. In late 2001, Physicians hired
Kuzhikalayih “Sam” Mathews, a Singapore native,
work as a financial analyst. In 2009, Mr. Mathews began
working under Paula Hutson in the Pediatrics
Department. Physicians gave Mr. Mathews positive
performance reviews. On July 29, 2014, however, Physicians
terminated 61-year old Mr. Mathews after putting him on a
45-day performance improvement plan. Mr. Mathews claims
Physicians' alleged deficient performance reasons to fire
him are pretext for national origin and age discrimination
and hostile work environment.
UPMC restructured its finance groups in 2013.
is an organization within the University of Pittsburgh
Medical Center (“UPMC”). Before 2013, UPMC's
financial analysts worked in separate units reporting only to
the units they served. In April 2013, UPMC restructured the
finance function across its organizations by consolidating
and centralizing it into a single organization serving
various departments. UPMC expected to eliminate a number of
financial analyst positions, and it required its financial
analysts to reapply and interview for
restructuring consolidated the finance groups of
Physicians' Pediatrics Department and Orthopedic Surgery
Department. Janet Storer served as the Manager of
Finance in this consolidated group. After interviewing Mr.
Mathews, Ms. Storer hired Mr. Mathews in April or May
2013. Ms. Storer reported to her supervisor
Brian Fritz who had overall responsibility for all of
Physicians' finances in the clinical department.
Mr. Mathews' difficult working relationship with
supervisor Ms. Storer.
Mathews had a difficult working relationship with his
supervisor, Ms. Storer. From January through May 2014, Ms.
Storer swears she had ongoing problems with Mr. Mathews'
job performance and his behavior toward her, claiming he
behaved argumentatively, uncooperatively, and sometimes
dishonestly about his job duties. Ms. Storer swears Mr.
Mathews “always seemed to have an excuse or
explanation, but it always seemed to miss the main point of
what I was trying [to] get him to do or not to
do.” She explains, “[I]t took an
inordinate amount of my time and energy just to try to show
him he was missing the point but also to fend off his anger
and vehemence.” Ms. Storer described Mr. Mathews'
anger as “frightening” and “so intense that
he would be visibly trembling.” Ms. Storer
swears she feared for her safety on one or two
occasions. Ms. Storer discussed these issues with
her supervisor, Mr. Fritz, on a regular basis.
Mathews also identifies issues he had with Ms. Storer. He
claims from January through July 2014, Ms. Storer engaged in
conduct which he characterizes as constituting a hostile work
environment. Mr. Mathews swears Ms. Storer: (1)
denied him information he needed to do his tasks, including
information required to complete a Profit and Loss; (2)
created obstacles to his tasks; (3) prohibited him from
communicating with others in the department who could provide
him with necessary information; (4) required him to channel
his queries through her but then chided him for not using his
own initiative to find information; (5) “thwarted [him]
in every fashion”; (6) “disparaged every move
[he] made”; and (7) “presented [him] with a
Mathews' working relationship with Ms. Storer included a
partially disputed May 9, 2014 incident. In a May 12, 2014
email, Ms. Storer told her boss Mr. Fritz and Mr.
Mathews' former boss Ms. Hutson about a May 9 meeting
with Mr. Mathews. Ms. Storer said she met with Mr.
Mathews, who was angry and felt he had not been given a
chance to learn certain tasks. Ms. Storer told them Mr.
Mathews said he had excellent reviews, “mentioned his
age, ” mentioned he and his wife were sick, and
“screamed” he would file a grievance with human
resources. In the email, Ms. Storer explained she
felt “somewhat threatened” by one of Mr.
Mathews' statements claiming Ms. Storer was
“persecuting him and that he would like to speak to
[her] outside of work.” Ms. Storer also explained to
Mr. Fritz and Ms. Hutson several performance-related issues
she had with Mr. Mathews.
Mathews, however, claims during the meeting he asked Ms.
Storer “civilly” if she could confine her
criticism of him to private offices instead of publicly
berating him in front of his coworkers. Mr. Mathews
swears he never “physically threatened” Ms.
Storer. With regard to the age reference, Mr.
Mathews told Ms. Storer, “I am a grown man, that
I'm 61 years of age and that you're treating me like
a child.” Mr. Mathews asked Ms. Storer if she had
animosity toward Mr. Mathews because of his
Mr. Fritz refers to Mr. Mathews as a cancer who needs to be
terminated, and a day later Physicians places him on a
performance improvement plan.
on May 12, 2014, Ms. Storer emailed Mr. Fritz about the May
9th meeting, Mr. Fritz emailed Human Resources
Director John Kunicky asking for guidance on how to terminate
Mr. Mathews, referring to him as a cancer:
We are having issues with a [sic] employee in the Ortho/Peds
pod. The current (past 6 months specifically) is complicated
as the previous manager (also his current manager Paula
Hutson) failed to manage him and do an appropriate
evaluation. Janet who is the Manager of the department is now
dealing with issues. We all agree he is a cancer to the
department and need to terminate [sic] we need your guidance
on how to do so appropriately.
following day, Mr. Fritz emailed Ms. Hutson stating Mr.
Mathews would undergo a performance improvement plan
(“PIP”). Mr. Fritz admonished Ms. Hutson for not
earlier dealing with Mr. Mathews' apparent issues:
“As [Mr. Mathews] is a direct report of yours a lot of
these issues in which Janet is now dealing should have been
addressed by you.” He continued, “We are far
beyond using reorganization as an excuse for anything and in
the midst of continued change which is the new norm. We are
focusing on value added activities and development of our
staff in which I see the opposite here.” Mr. Fritz
told Ms. Hutson she would play a role in managing Mr. Mathews
to achieve the PIP “and becoming a viable member of the
team and helping us progress or he will no longer be part of
Fritz and Mr. Kunicky spoke by telephone on several occasions
over the following months about the conflict and performance
issues Ms. Storer had with Mr. Mathews. Mr. Kunicky
discussed this matter with his direct report, human resources
consultant Meghann Ledford, who had also been working on the
matter. Mr. Kunicky asked Ms. Ledford to solicit
and gather documents and other materials from Mr. Mathews,
Ms. Storer, Ms. Hutson, and others so Mr. Kunicky could
review the matter independently and be able to advise Mr.
Fritz on how to handle the situation. Ms. Ledford
admits she did not give Mr. Mathews the opportunity to share
his side of the story before Physicians placed him on the
the course of the next few weeks, Ms. Storer worked with Ms.
Ledford on several drafts of a written PIP
document. Mr. Fritz and Mr. Kunicky reviewed and
edited these drafts, and Ms. Hutson provided her input as
Physicians place Mr. Mathews on a PIP.
12, 2014, despite Mr. Fritz's reference to Mr. Mathews as
a cancer to be terminated, Physicians placed Mr. Mathews on a
PIP for a 45-day period. The PIP provided Ms. Hutson and Ms.
Storer would meet with Mr. Mathews on a weekly basis to
discuss his progress. If Mr. Mathews failed to improve his
performance under the PIP, he could be
Ms. Storer met with Mr. Mathews to discuss the PIP, Mr.
Mathews reacted “angrily and argumentatively” to
the issues addressed in the PIP. Mr. Mathews saw many
factual inaccuracies in the PIP and proceeded to write a
response. Mr. Mathews claims the PIP did not
clarify how he would be evaluated during the
Mr. Mathews' meeting with Mr. Fritz regarding the
Mathews requested a meeting with Mr. Fritz to discuss the
PIP, stating he believed “a significant amount of
confusion has been sowed.” Mr. Fritz responded
although he supported the PIP, he would schedule a meeting to
discuss “improvement points” with Mr. Mathews but
not to discuss his challenges to the plan. Mr. Mathews
responded he did not intend to challenge anything in the PIP,
but sought to “fill in some critical facts that were
omitted” and to discuss the metrics Physicians would
use to measure his performance.
Mr. Fritz received Mr. Mathews' email, he emailed Ms.
Storer and Ms. Ledford, stating he would be glad to meet with
Mr. Mathews but would be “wary to do so without others
present” because his interactions with Mr. Mathews
“have led me to correlate him to a used car salesman
and only out for his own good. By meeting with me I would
guess he has more than one motive.”
that month, shortly after the PIP began, Mr. Mathews met with
Mr. Fritz and provided him written materials defending each
point addressed in the PIP. Mr. Mathews defended his prior
conduct and requested a clearer articulation of the metrics
which would be used to address his performance. Mr. Fritz,
however, swears Mr. Mathews appeared “almost obsessed
with arguing over details that were not important to his
overall performance deficiencies.” Mr. Fritz
came away from the meeting “with the clear impression
that [Mr. Mathews] was not trying to improve his performance,
but was trying to prove Janet Storer wrong-that it had become
a personal contest for [Mr. Mathews] and [Ms.
Storer]. Mr. Fritz explains Mr. Mathews
“was completely missing the larger point of the PIP,
which was for him to learn to cooperate with his manager and
get his projects done properly and timely-and without
burdening his manager or others with having to help him do
Mr. Mathews' PIP meetings with Management.
Mathews had a series of meetings with management during the
PIP period, including a meeting on July 9, 2014 documented by
Ms. Hutson, Ms. Storer, and Ms. Ledford in emails sent to
management. The meeting did not go well for Mr. Mathews. Ms.
Hutson described the meeting as “very
uncomfortable” and “unproductive, ” and she
noted Mr. Mathews' strained relationship with Ms.
to Ms. Storer, Mr. Mathews' anger frightened her, and she
noted Mr. Mathews “records everything I say and do much
like a stalker.” Ms. Storer told Mr. Fritz she felt
“bullied, ” and she feared Mr. Mathews would harm
her. Ms. Storer mentioned Mr. Mathews
“is not working towards being a productive member of
our team. [He] is angry and would rather document and argue
then move forward.”
Ledford recalled Mr. Mathews as being “loud and yelling
at times because he is frustrated that he was even placed on
a PIP and doesn't feel that [Ms. Storer] is giving him
the proper training he needs to succeed.” After hearing
about this meeting, Mr. Fritz suggested discharging Mr.
Mathews before the conclusion of the PIP, possibly for
Ledford met with Mr. Mathews two days later and told him
“his behavior can't continue and that he must be
respectful.” Mr. Mathews apologized several times,
but said he felt Ms. Storer targeted him. Ms. Ledford
spoke with Ms. Storer after this meeting and told her she did
not have problems with Mr. Mathews. Ms. Storer “seemed
surprised by this and feels that we are giving him false
hope.” Ms. Storer nonetheless agreed to
continue meeting with Mr. Mathews.
Mr. Fritz discharges Mr. Mathews.
29, 2014, Mr. Fritz discharged Mr. Mathews. Mr. Fritz
explains he did so because Mr. Mathews either (a)
“never accepted the PIP was needed, so he refused to
cooperate in it, ” or (b) Mr. Mathews “was not
capable of doing what was being asked, so he masked that
inability by being argumentative and hostile with” Ms.
Storer. Physicians replaced Mr. Mathews with Ms.
Walsh, who is Caucasian.
Alleged discriminatory statements.
Mathews alleges two incidents in which Ms. Storer allegedly
made discriminatory statements, and he argues these
statements are relevant to his national origin discrimination
and hostile work environment claims. We refer to these
statements as the America's favorite past-time statement
and the Indian statement.
America's favorite past-time statement.
the PIP period, Ms. Storer made a comment to Mr. Mathews
which could be suggestive of national origin bias. On June
19, 2014, Ms. Storer asked Mr. Mathews whether he would be
going to a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game, and he said
no. Ms. Storer responded in a tone Mr.
Mathews perceived to be discriminatory, stating she was
“not surprised” he would not be attending the
Pirates game, “America's [emphasized in tone]
favorite past time.”
meeting at some point between February 2014 and July 2014,
Ms. Storer repeated the hearsay statement of a coworker which
mentioned a coworker's national origin. During the
meeting, Ms. Storer restated the statement of employee, Dr.
Fu, who said another employee, Naveed Ismail, “had
suggested that [Dr. Fu] was a snazzy dresser and that he [Mr.
Ismail] wouldn't have any trouble working with an Indian
Mathews sued Physicians for age and national origin
discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation
under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967,
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,  and the
Pennsylvania Human Relations Act
(“PHRA”). Physicians moves for summary
judgment, arguing Mr. Mathews' claims fail as a matter of
Mr. Mathews adduces evidence of age
prevail under the ADEA, Mr. Mathews must prove “but
for” his age, he would not have suffered an adverse
employment action. To survive summary judgment, Mr. Mathews
may present direct evidence demonstrating age constituted the
but-for cause of the decision or demonstrate pretext under
the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden
shifting framework. Physicians argues Mr. Mathews fails under
both methods. We find there is sufficient evidence under the
McDonnell Douglas framework to find Physicians'
proffered explanation for terminating Mr. Mathews is
the McDonnell Douglas framework, if Mr. Mathews
establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to
Physicians to proffer evidence of legitimate
non-discriminatory reasons for its adverse employment
actions. “The defendant satisfies its
burden at this step by introducing evidence which, taken as
true, would permit the conclusion that there was a
nondiscriminatory reason for the unfavorable
action.” Once satisfied, Mr. Mathews must then
show, by a preponderance of the evidence, Physicians'
explanation is “pretextual.”
does not challenge Mr. Mathews' prima facie
case. Mr. Mathews argues Physicians fails to articulate a
legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for discharging Mr.
Mathews. This argument fails. “The defendant's
burden at this stage is relatively light: it is satisfied if
the defendant articulates any legitimate reason for the
discharge; the defendant need not prove that the articulated
reason actually motivated the discharge.” Physicians
satisfies this burden, as demonstrated by Mr. Fritz's
explanation Mr. Mathews' either (a) never accepted the
necessity of the PIP and refused to cooperate in it, or (b)
lacked the capability to do the work and masked his inability
with argumentativeness and hostility toward Ms.
Physicians satisfies its burden, Mr. Mathews must: (a) adduce
evidence allowing a factfinder to disbelieve Physicians'
reasons; or (b) point to evidence allowing a factfinder to
believe an invidious discriminatory reason more likely than
not constituted a “determinative cause”
Physicians' conduct. “To discredit the
employer's proffered reason . . . the plaintiff cannot
simply show that the employer's decision was wrong or
mistaken, since the factual dispute at issue is whether
discriminatory animus motivated the employer, not whether the
employer is wise, shrewd, prudent or
is sufficient evidence allowing a reasonable jury to
disbelieve Mr. Fritz's explanation for terminating Mr.
Mathews. Within hours of Physicians deciding to institute the
PIP, Mr. Fritz sent an email to Mr. Kunicky in Human
Resources stating “all agree” Mr. Mathews is a
“cancer to the department and need to
terminate.” Mr. Fritz's statement casts doubt on
whether he ever intended to give Mr. Mathews a chance under
the PIP. A reasonable jury could find the PIP to be a sham.
We recognize Mr. Fritz's later emails regarding a PIP,
but there is a question of credibility as to whether Mr.
Fritz already decided to fire Mr. Mathews under the PIP. If
so, a jury must explore why. Although Mr. Mathews adduces
sufficient evidence to withstand summary judgment, he retains
the ultimate burden at trial of proving intentional
discrimination, i.e. “age was a determinate
factor” in UPP's decision. We accordingly deny
Physicians' motion for summary judgment as to Mr.
Mathews' age claims.
Mr. Mathews adduces evidence of national origin
prevail on a claim for national origin discrimination, Mr.
Mathews must present evidence allowing a reasonable jury to
conclude his national origin “was a motivating
factor” in Physicians' decision to discharge
him. Mr. Mathews can prove his case with
direct evidence of discrimination or under the McDonnell
Douglas pretext analysis. Physicians argues Mr. Mathews
fails under both methods.
establish a prima facie case of national origin
discrimination, Mr. Mathews must show: (1) he is a member of
a protected class; (2) he was qualified for his position; (3)
he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the action
occurred under circumstances that could give rise to an
inference of ...