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McCaffery v. Creative Hairdressers, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 13, 2020

CREATIVE HAIRDRESSERS, INC. d/b/a Hair Cuttery, and RATNER COMPANIES, L.C., d/b/a Hair Cuttery


          Baylson, J.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Kathleen McCaffery was fired after just over thirty years of employment at Hair Cuttery, [1] much of it as a manager. Hair Cuttery says that it fired her because an internal investigation revealed that she was abusive towards her staff. Plaintiff, however, believes that comments made by management, as well as flaws in Hair Cuttery's investigation process and termination decision, suggest that she was fired because of her age and despite her long tenure with the company. She sued, bringing federal and state age discrimination claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and Pennsylvania human Relations Act (“PHRA”).

         Hair Cuttery now moves for summary judgment on all counts. It argues that its investigation and subsequent decision to terminate her were both sound, and that there is no evidence of age-based animus. Plaintiff argues in opposition that there is enough evidence for a reasonable factfinder to conclude that Hair Cuttery's investigation and subsequent decision were pretext for a discriminatory decision.

         For the reasons stated below, Hair Cuttery's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied.

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiff sued on November 21, 2018, ECF 1, and the case was assigned to Judge Kelly. Hair Cuttery answered on February 1, 2019. ECF 6. The parties conducted discovery until June II, 2019. ECF 9 (scheduling order).

         Hair Cuttery filed for summary judgment on June 25, 2019. ECF 10. Plaintiff responded on July 23. ECF 13. Hair Cuttery replied on July 30. ECF 14. Plaintiff filed a surreply on August 2. ECF 15. On November 7, upon Judge Kelly's retirement, the case was reassigned. ECF 16. The Court held oral argument on the Motion on December 16.

         III. Legal Framework

         “The same legal standard applies to both the ADEA and the PHRA and therefore it is proper to address them collectively.” Kautz v. Met-Pro Corp., 412 F.3d 463, 466 n.1 (3d Cir. 2005).

         “Age discrimination claims in which the plaintiff relies on circumstantial evidence proceed according to the three-part burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).” Willis v. UPMC Children's Hosp. of Pittsburgh, 808 F.3d 638, 644 (3d Cir. 2015). That framework contains three steps. First, the plaintiff has the burden to “establish a prima facie case of discrimination.” Ross v. Gilhuly, 755 F.3d 185, 193 (3d Cir. 2014). Second, once the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the defendant has the burden to “articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.” Willis, 808 F.3d at 644 (quoting Jones v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 198 F.3d 403, 412 (3d Cir. 1999)). Third and finally, “[i]f the employer satisfies th[e] second step, the burden shifts back once more to the plaintiff to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the employer's proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason was pretextual.” Id. (quoting Burton v. Teleflex, Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 426 (3d Cir. 2013)).

         A plaintiff may show pretext either by “point[ing] to evidence that would allow a factfinder to disbelieve the employer's reason for the adverse employment action” or “point[ing] to evidence that would allow a factfinder to believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was ‘more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause' of the employer's action.'' Id. at 645 (quoting Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 764-65 (3d Cir. 1994)).

         To establish pretext by providing grounds to disbelieve the defendant's proffered rationale, the plaintiff's “evidence must indicate ‘such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate reasons' to satisfy the factfinder that the employer's actions could not have been for nondiscriminatory reasons.” Id. at 644-45 (quoting Fuentes, 32 F.3d at 765). However, it is only “at trial [that] the plaintiff must convince the factfinder that not only was the employer's proffered reason false, but the real reason was impermissible discrimination.” Id. at 645 (citing Fuentes, 32 F.3d at 763); see Bulifant v. Del. River & Bay Auth., 698 Fed. App'x 660, 665 (3d Cir. 2017).

         IV. The Parties' Contentions

         The parties agree that Plaintiff has made out her prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas, and that Hair Cuttery has responded with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason that Plaintiff was terminated. They disagree about whether Plaintiff has provided sufficient evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment.

         In seeking summary judgment, Hair Cuttery essentially rests on the integrity of its investigation. It argues that its grounds for terminating Plaintiff were “beyond reproach, ” and any inquiries about when Plaintiff would retire were mere “stray remarks” insufficient to provide evidence of discrimination. Defs.' Mem. Law in Supp. of Summ. J. (“Def. MSJ Mem.”) at 9-10 (citing Hook v. Ernst & Young, 28 F.3d 366 (3d Cir. 1994)).

         In opposition, Plaintiff argues that there were many problems with the problem leading up to her termination, and that a fact-finder could take the inquiry about retirement into account. Pl.'s Mem. Law in Opp'n to ...

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