PHILADELPHIA – On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled against a former employee of Bristol Township who sued the municipality for unlawful age discrimination.
Last July, Paula Kearns, 64, filed suit against Bristol Township, where she had formerly worked as a Human Resources Manager from November 2010 to June 2013. Kearns claims her termination was as a result of illegal discrimination from the Township Administrator based on her age, and she was replaced by a younger, less-qualified successor.
Kearns’ tenure began in November 2010 under former Bristol Township Manager Jeff Bartlett. In January 2012, a new Township administration removed Bartlett as Township Manager and replaced him with William McCauley.
Kearns became concerned with her job security when the township installed McCauley, since he had told all department heads he was given direction from the Township Council to terminate all of them and start over, she said.
However, McCauley elected not to take such a course of action until he had personally evaluated their work.
From January 2012 until Kearns ultimately left the Township, she and McCauley allegedly disagreed regarding “procedures or how things should be run or what he wanted done compared to the way Kearns thought was the right way to do something.”
The Township claimed Kearns failed to “follow a management directive” and perform background checks on the seasonal help. Further, Kearns supposedly hired and authorized payroll for seasonal employees without obtaining McCauley's approval beforehand.
Per testimony, McCauley stated in June 2013 he told Kearns to begin looking for a new job and to train Mary Kate Murphy, 39, for her job duties, since he “became dissatisfied with Kearns’ work and ultimately chose to terminate her employment when she did not return to work after having an ‘outburst’ directed towards him.”
Per federal law to establish age discrimination under the ADEA, Kearns must demonstrate: “(1) She is forty years of age or older; (2) The defendant took an adverse employment action against her; (3) She was qualified for the position in question; and (4) She was ultimately replaced by another employee who was sufficiently younger to support an inference of discriminatory animus.”
Judge Mark A. Kearney of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said the first three criteria were obviously satisfied, but Kearns did successfully demonstrate the fourth as well.
“Township argues it did not replace Kearns with an employee ‘sufficiently younger to support an inference of discriminatory animus.’ Specifically, Township argues Murphy did not replace Keams as Human Resources Manager, but rather served on an interim basis until it hired Tom Scott as Human Resources Manager in January 2014,” Kearney said.
Kearney added Scott is 49 years old and approximately 14 years younger than Kearns.
“Scott is sufficiently younger than Kearns to establish a prima facie case and the combined differences in age between Kearns on the one hand and Murphy and Scott on the other is clearly sufficient to satisfy the fourth prong. Therefore, we find Kearns established a prima facie case of age discrimination,” Kearney said.
Since Kearns successfully established a prima facie case against the Township, the burden fell to it to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Kearns’ dismissal – and again cited her “disagreeable” relationship with McCauley, as well as the fiasco over the hiring and payroll approval of seasonal workers without McCauley’s approval.
Kearns attempted to connect her treatment from McCauley to that experienced by younger former employees, who she claimed had engaged in more “egregious” conduct but were treated “more favorably.”
“Kearns does not directly challenge the Township's proffered reasons. Instead, Kearns points to two ‘similarly situated’ younger employees to prove pretext: Scott Swichar and Keith Truman. Kearns argues these employees engaged in more egregious conduct and were treated more favorably. However, we find using employees Swichar and Truman as comparators is insufficient to show Township's proffered reasons are merely pretext for age discrimination,” Kearney opined.
The comparison Kearns made between herself and Swichar and Truman did not find favor with Kearney.
“We find Kearns fails to show the comparators Swichar and Truman are similarly situated in all relevant respects,” Kearney said.
“In her deposition, Kearns testified McCauley had never mentioned her age in any of the disagreements they had over implementing Township procedures. Further, she could not answer whether she felt that any of the actions taken by McCauley against her were because of her age.”
Kearney explained Kearns “elected here not to invalidate the facts underlying the Township's stated ‘failure of performance’ reasons for her termination” but instead, “she attempts to prove the Township's reasons were pretext by citing to comparators hired by the new Township Administrator allegedly treated more favorably with less severe treatment for more egregious conduct.”
“Contrary to the Township's arguments, she states a prima facie case. But absent any challenge to the Township's stated reasons as being false, her reliance on the inapposite two comparators does not meet her burden of showing competent evidence that the Township's proffered reasons for firing her are merely pretext for discriminatory animus. We grant the Township's motion for summary judgment and dismiss Plaintiffs case,” Kearney said.
The plaintiff was seeking an enjoinment against the defendant from further discriminatory conduct, back pay, bonuses, promotions and other benefits, actual damages, punitive damages, attorneys fees, court costs and injunctive relief, plus any other relief the Court deems proper in this case.
The plaintiff was represented by Timothy M. Kolman, W. Charles Sipio and Wayne A. Ely of Kolman Ely, in Penndel.
The defendant was represented by Joseph J. Santarone, Jr. of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, in Philadelphia.
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-04353
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org