The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently revived an age discrimination lawsuit brought against printing giant QG LLC by a former Plant Facilities Manager, finding that QG could not hide behind the poor economic climate and its own decision to reduce headcount when it discharged the manager and replaced him with a younger employee, particularly given that it offered inconsistent reasons for the discharge.

In Pierson v. Quad/Graphics Printing Corp., James Pierson was discharged from his position as Plant Facilities Manager at the age of sixty-two.  QG was experiencing financial setbacks and decided to cut costs and eliminate various positions. QG’s Southeast Regional Facilities Manager, Carl Lentz, and Executive Director of Facilities, Joe Muehlbach, determined that Pierson’s position should be eliminated as part of a reduction in force. When Lentz terminated Pierson’s employment, he read from a “script” provided by human resources that explained that the discharge was a result of this RIF. However, the day prior to Pierson’s discharge, Lentz informed an HR Manager that his decision to terminate Pierson’s employment was at least in part because of Pierson’s failure to be a “team player,” and Lentz allegedly “justified the decision by preparing performance evaluations that reflect[ed] that Pierson was not a ‘team player.’” In apparent contradiction to Lentz’s reasoning, Muehlbach maintained that the decision was based entirely on a need to reduce headcount and not based at all on Pierson’s performance.

The district court dismissed Pierson’s age discrimination and retaliation claims on summary judgment. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit considered whether Pierson was discharged as part of a RIF or if he was replaced by 47-year old David DePriest. The court found that Pierson had been effectively replaced by the younger DePriest and was therefore not subject to the heightened burden of proof required in reduction in force cases. While the court acknowledged that the evidence demonstrated that DePriest retained his other job functions in addition to assuming Pierson’s, Pierson provided enough evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that he had been replaced by DePriest. The court found QG’s assertion that DePriest assumed Pierson’s duties in addition to his own to be undermined by the fact that DePriest’s work hours did not increase when he took over Pierson’s former duties and that the majority of DePriest’s time was dedicated to managing Pierson’s former plant. Pierson also submitted into evidence internal memos stating that his former duties were now “observed” by DePriest and that DePriest had been given Pierson’s previously-held title of “Plant Facilities Manager.”

Because Pierson was found to have been replaced, his burden of proof was not the heightened RIF standard, and the court ruled that he was able to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination. The court also found that Pierson could successfully prove pretext. QG’s shifting reasons for discharging Pierson and the uncertainty about who was responsible for the termination decision caused the court to conclude that there was simply too much flip-flopping by QG to warrant a grant of summary judgment.

Bottom Line: This decision serves as an important reminder that an employee laid off in a reduction in force may still be able to prove that he was replaced, thereby lowering his burden to prove discrimination. In addition, an employer’s failure to articulate the real reason for an employment decision and stick with it through litigation can undermine its motion for summary judgment and ultimately lead a jury to reject all of the employer’s proffered reasons and conclude that unlawful discrimination or retaliation was the real reason for the decision.