Federal court denies summary judgment and allows plaintiff’s federal, state, and city age discrimination claims to continue

Scott v. WPIX, Inc., 10 Civ. 4622 (SDNY Dec. 21, 2011) (WHP):  The Southern District denied defendant’s motions for summary judgment seeking dismissal of plaintiff Karen Scott’s age discrimination claim under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).  Plaintiff, who held the position of News Director at the time of her termination, was fired by 50 year-old Betty Ellen Berlamino.

The court evaluated plaintiff’s federal, state, and city law claims under the “three-step burden shifting framework” provided by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).  The court found summary judgment-defeating issues of fact as to each step of the analysis.

Step One:  Prima Facie Case.  To satisfy her “de minimis” burden of demonstrating a prima facie case, plaintiff was required to show “that she was (1) within the protected age group; (2) qualified for her position; (3) subject to an adverse employment decision, and that (4) such decision occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.”  Plaintiff did so, notwithstanding the “fact that Berlamino herself is a member of [plaintiff’s] protected class”.  Plaintiff offered adequate evidence on the only disputed element (the inference of discrimination) – namely, the “significant” eight-year age difference between plaintiff and her replacement and the fact that Berlamino “repeatedly made derogatory comments about other employees in [plaintiff’s] age group and later took adverse employment action against them”.

Step Two:  Legitimate Non-Discriminatory Reason.  As for step two, a genuine factual dispute existed “regarding whether WPIX terminated Scott for her inability to improve ratings because WPIX’s ratings fluctuated widely in the months leading to Scott’s termination. While Berlamino warned Scott that she must improve poor ratings, she and others also praised Scott when ratings improved. Additionally, Scott’s employment file was devoid of any record of performance problems, further suggesting that a reasonable juror could find in Scott’s favor on this issue.”

Step Three:  Pretext.  As for step three, plaintiff offered sufficient evidence to establish a disputed issue of material fact about whether WPIX’s reason was pretextual.  Under the ADEA plaintiff was required to show “that age was the ‘but-for’ cause of the challenged adverse employment action and not just a contributing or motivating factor”; under the NYSHRL and NYCHRL plaintiff was only required to “show that her age was a ‘motivating factor’ for her termination.”

Plaintiff established a genuine dispute of material fact regarding her ADEA claim

“because the lack of any documentation of performance-related issues in her employee file suggests that WPIX’s reasons for terminating Scott were pretextual. Further, WPIX’s fluctuating ratings also undermine WPIX’s claim that it terminated Scott based on falling ratings. Moreover, Berlamino’s comments that certain anchors and reporters were ‘too old’ for their jobs and her later adverse employment actions against those same individuals establishes that a genuine dispute of material fact exists.”

Finally, the factual issues regarding plaintiff’s ADEA claim necessarily “preclude[d] summary judgment under the more lenient ‘motivating factor’ standard of the NYSHRL and NYCHRL.”

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