Emma Gallimore Feb. 12, 2016, 10:13am


PHILADELPHIA - Age discrimination could not be proved in the firing of a Pittsburgh neonatal nurse practitioner, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled. 

Catherine Willis filed an Age Discrimination in Employment Act lawsuit alleging that her job at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh was terminated due to her age. Willis was 61 when she was fired in 2012. The court found she couldn't prove certain aspects of her argument.

Willis presented three arguments. First, that the hospital treated similar, but younger employees differently than she was treated. Second, that she had once told a supervisor that she planned to work until age 65. Finally, that she believed she had suffered discrimination due to her age.

“The court, however, did not credit her testimony that there were others who were treated differently. She didn’t have any objective facts - it was based on her subjective opinion,” said Jeffrey Dretler, a partner at Fisher & Phillips in Boston who handles labor cases.

Willis was unable to provide any concrete evidence showing that younger employees had engaged in the same behaviors and had been treated differently. The court noted that her subjective belief that she was discriminated against was not enough to satisfy the burden of proof in the case.

Judge Joy Flowers Conti, of the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a summary judgment dismissing the case in February 2015. 

The hospital, by contrast, presented a wealth of documented evidence to show that Willis was terminated due to conduct that the hospital found to be inappropriate.

The evidence included documentation alleging that Willis had used inappropriate language, loudly disparaged her teammates to her supervisor within earshot of other staff members and did not perform a complete patient history, physical, and admission order for an incoming patient.

Upon investigation by the hospital into the admissions failure, Willis allegedly gave inconsistent answers and then admitted that she could not remember what care she had provided to the patient and when. She was subsequently terminated.

The case was not unusual in the employment law arena, Dretler said.

“Employees who are terminated can file lawsuits and often do, whether or not their claims have actual merit,” Dretler said. “The employer sometimes can get them dismissed early on, but sometimes have to go through a certain amount of discovery.”

Even when cases don’t go to trial, employers can spend a lot of money on court fees defending them, he added. It’s rare that they recoup any of that money, even when a case is dismissed with costs - the costs include filing fees and the like, not legal fees paid to attorneys, Dretler said.

“As a general matter, employers can’t recover legal fees for defending themselves unless it is a frivolous lawsuit, and that’s a very high standard,” Dretler said. “Employers always have to be careful when terminating anyone’s employment to be sure that they’re complying with the law and always have to weigh the chances that they might get sued.”

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