In a recent decision, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that an employee who claimed he was terminated for discriminatory reasons based on his disability was laid off for legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons in a reduction in force (RIF).
The MITRE Corporation is a nonprofit research and development organization that provides services to the federal government. In 2007, “Demetri” began working at MITRE’s New Jersey location as a midlevel simulation and modeling engineer supporting the U.S. Army. In 2010, he transferred to a position supporting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and no longer performed simulation or modeling work.
Demetri suffers from an eye disease known as advanced keratoconus that obscures his vision. In 2010, because he was having difficulty using his 22-inch computer monitor, he sent a message to an employee in the property department requesting a larger screen. Within a few days, he received a 24-inch monitor as well as a secondary 19-inch monitor to ease his computer use. He took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for his keratoconus four times between August 2010 and his termination in April 2013.
In 2011, MITRE implemented a new system for annual performance evaluations called “laddering.” The company used the system for only 3 years. Under the laddering review process, supervisors and management ranked every employee against his peers. Based on the rankings, employees were given a score of 1, 2, or 3. A 3 was the lowest rating, and any employee who was ranked as a 3 didn’t receive a raise or salary adjustment for that year. Although Demetri now alleges that the laddering evaluations were discriminatory, he made no such complaints at the time.
From 2007 to 2010, Demetri received generally favorable reviews. In his 2011 midyear review, he received another positive written review. Then, in his 2011 annual review, the first review using the laddering system, he received a 3 rating. The following year, in his 2012 annual review, he again received a 3 rating. Based on those ratings, he didn’t receive a raise either year.
In March 2013, MITRE became concerned about the debilitating effect that a potential government sequestration would have on its operations. As a result, it decided to implement a RIF and lay off 105 employees throughout its offices. All employees who had received a 3 on their 2012 annual evaluation were included in the group of employees to be terminated in the RIF. Because he had received a 3 on his 2012 evaluation, Demetri was included in the employees slated for termination.
The RIF wasn’t announced until April 17. On the day of the announcement, Demetri was out on approved FMLA leave. Although he was on leave, he heard about the RIF and went to the office the following day to learn what had happened. While he was on-site, a supervisor informed him that he would be terminated as part of the RIF.
Demetri sued MITRE, filing 11 claims against his former employer. All of his claims involved common allegations that MITRE discriminated against him because of his keratoconus, which he argued is a protected disability. He asserted discrimination and failure-to-accommodate claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the FMLA, among other things.
The court granted MITRE’s motion for summary judgment (dismissal without a trial), ruling that Demetri’s claims against the company failed because he didn’t present sufficient evidence that its decision to terminate him as part of the RIF was related to his keratoconus.
With regard to his discrimination claim, the court found that Demetri hadn’t made a sufficient initial showing of discrimination, but even if he had, the company satisfied its burden of providing a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for his termination. The court explained that there was no evidence that he was terminated for any reason other than his low performance scores.
It noted that the fact he was terminated at the same time as more than 100 other employees indicated that the layoff wasn’t a pretextual (dishonest) reason for terminating him. His other NJLAD claims failed because they were beyond the 2-year statute of limitations.
In support of his FMLA claim, Demetri alleged that MITRE acted on a “mixed motive” when it terminated him both because of its need to downsize and because of his use of FMLA leave related to his disability. To succeed on a mixed-motive claim, an employee must show that the decision maker “placed substantial negative reliance on an illegitimate criterion.” The employer can rebut the employee’s evidence by showing that he would have been fired regardless of his use of FMLA leave.
Again, the court found that Demetri’s low performance ratings were the only reason for his inclusion in the RIF. The layoff decisions were made before he went on FMLA leave, and his inclusion in the RIF was based on an evaluation that happened well before his latest FMLA leave.
Throughout its decision and in its analysis of Demetri’s claims, the court noted that he failed to bring any complaints of discrimination to HR or Health Services despite knowing that there was a designated representative in New Jersey to whom he could report such claims. Additionally, the court noted that he had received training on reporting discrimination and harassment, yet he failed to report any alleged discrimination while he was employed at MITRE.
This decision is a reminder of the importance of using consistent methods for evaluating employees, documenting employee evaluations, and basing employment decisions on a worker’s documented performance. Additionally, your defense against any discrimination charges will be aided if your policies and procedures for reporting discrimination are well documented and well-known to your employees.
Mary Pat Brogan is a contributor to New Jersey Employment Law Letter.