Barrett & Farahany is taking the issue of discrimination to the U.S. Supreme Court and asking the justices to clarify the way courts should analyze evidence in motions for summary judgment in employment discrimination cases. On February 8, the firm filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari on behalf of Roddie Melvin, a former Federal Express Corporation managing director.
Barrett & Farahany is asking the Supreme Court to clarify that courts should examine all the evidence together as a whole to determine if a reasonable jury would find discrimination, instead of the current practice in which courts apply a special heightened standard of proof that separately evaluates different pieces of evidence. In Melvin v. Federal Express Corp., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit applied the latter method. In doing so, the court ignored crucial evidence of discrimination while evaluating whether the employer's justifications for terminating the employee were pretext for discrimination. Based on that flawed, compartmentalized method of analysis, the court ultimately decided against Melvin. Barrett & Farahany is asking the Supreme Court to instruct the courts to put aside the overly-complicated heightened standards of proof and simply consider whether the evidence, taken as a whole, is enough that a jury could conclude there was discrimination.
New Supervisor Queried Age and Retirement
In 2016, Roddie Melvin was a successful executive at Federal Express (“FedEx”) in Atlanta and had won several merit awards for his exceptional work. He had been with the company for 32 years when in the spring a new vice president, Joseph Stephens, became his supervisor. In their first conversation, Stephens asked Melvin how old he was, when he was going to retire, and if he wanted to continue his job given his age. Stephens also suggested that Melvin move on and let younger workers take over. Shortly after the remarks, Melvin complained to human resources about the ageist remarks.
Prior to Stephens becoming his supervisor, Melvin had only been written up twice in his entire 32-year career at FedEx. In the six months following their first conversation, Stephens issued three disciplinary letters against Melvin. Shortly after the third letter, FedEx fired Melvin.
In 2017, Melvin sued FedEx in federal court, alleging the shipping giant had violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and fired him because of his age. The district court granted FedEx's request for summary judgment, dismissing the case. The district court concluded that Stephens' ageist comments were disturbing but not “probative circumstantial evidence” that Melvin had been fired for his age. The court also found that no reasonable jury could find the three disciplinary letters, which FedEx used as the basis for firing Melvin, were pretext for age discrimination.
Eleventh Circuit Applied “Convincing Mosaic” Standard
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the summary judgment. In making its decision, the court applied what it calls the “convincing mosaic” standard and found that Stephens' comments were not direct evidence but circumstantial. It nevertheless concluded that Stephens' comments were probative evidence of discrimination and “certainly support a showing of discriminatory intent.” However, the court ruled that the evidence of discriminatory intent was not enough to defeat summary judgment. Instead, the Eleventh Circuit put aside that evidence and required Melvin to separately prove that the justifications in Stephens' three disciplinary letters were false. The court concluded Melvin had not proven the disciplinary letters were false, and so affirmed the dismissal of his case at summary judgment.
Clarifying the Analysis
Barrett & Farahany is now appealing to the Supreme Court on Melvin's behalf. In this appeal, Barrett & Farahany is asking the Court to clarify how courts should analyze evidence in discrimination cases. For too long, courts have believed the Supreme Court required them to apply overly-complicated proof structures - such as the McDonnell Douglas framework or the “convincing mosaic - in order to analyze employment discrimination cases. But these special heightened standards of proof frequently cause courts to focus on formalistic, secondary issues that distract from the real question: whether discrimination occurred. For instance, in Melvin's case, the Eleventh Circuit found that Stephens' ageist remarks “support a showing of discriminatory intent.” But, because it applied the “convincing mosaic” method, it proceeded to ignore that evidence when analyzing the disciplinary letters. This is not logical. A jury that believed Stephens made those ageist remarks would be more likely to believe what he wrote in the disciplinary letters is a pretext for age discrimination. Therefore, Barrett & Farahany is asking the Supreme Court to clarify that courts should consider all the evidence of discrimination together as a whole in order to determine whether a reasonable jury could conclude discrimination occurred.
Amanda Farahany, Benjamin Stark, Catherine Gavrilidis, Zachary Panter, and Grace Starling make up the Barrett & Farahany team along with Sachin S. Pandya, a University of Connecticut School of Law professor who specializes in employment law.
We at Barrett & Farahany are happy to answer any questions you have about age discrimination in the workplace or the standards of evidence in employment discrimination cases. Please don't hesitate to contact us.