Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products: Stemming the Tide of Motions for Summary Judgment and Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law - Trevor K. Ross

Publication year2001


Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products: Stemming the Tide of Motions for Summary Judgment and Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law

In Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc.,1 the Supreme Court addressed the evidentiary burdens required of a plaintiff in an ADEA case, holding that evidence leading the fact finder to reject the defendant's proffered legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons together with the elements of a prima facie case may meet a plaintiff's burden to show intentional discrimination.2 Additionally, the Court at last set forth the way in which judges may consider a motion for judgment as a matter of law without weighing the evidence, holding that a court should consider all the nonmovant's evidence drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmovant, but only consider the movant's evidence that is uncontradicted or unimpeached and coming from disinterested witness-I. Factual Background

Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. ("Sanderson"), a toilet seat and cover manufacturer, hired Roger Reeves in 1955 at the age of eighteen. In 1995 Reeves worked as a mid-level manager of Sanderson's "Hinge Room," specifically overseeing the "regular line." Joe Oswalt, Reeves' counterpart, managed the "special line," and Russell Caldwell supervised both the regular and special lines. In 1995 Reeves, age fifty-seven, Caldwell, age forty-five, and Oswalt, mid-thirties, were responsible for tracking the number of hours worked by each employee. As the supervisor over the Hinge Room, Oswalt also reviewed all monthly time sheet reports and disciplined tardy or absent union employees. During a regular meeting with Sanderson's director of manufacturing, Powe Chesnut, Caldwell revealed that production levels within the Hinge Room were down and attributed this decline in production to employee tardiness and absence during scheduled hours. Chesnut ordered a three-month audit of the Hinge Room time sheets, discovering that the monthly time sheet reports did not indicate an attendance or tardiness problem. The result of the audit revealed several discrepancies, and Chesnut recommended to his wife, the president of Sanderson, that Caldwell and Reeves be terminated. Prior to the problem in 1995, management also found errors attributed to Reeves in 1993 and placed him on a ninety-day probation period. Based on the recommendation of her husband, Sanderson's president terminated both Reeves and Caldwell.4

Subsequently, Reeves filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, alleging a violation of the Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA").5 The basis for Reeves' claims stemmed from two "age-related statements allegedly made by Chesnut several months before Reeves' dismissal, namely (1) that Reeves was so old that he 'must have come over on the Mayflower,' and (2) that he was 'too damn old to do his job.'"6 During trial Sanderson argued that Reeves was terminated for poor work performance, citing his 1993 probation and inaccurate records in 1995. On the day that Sanderson terminated Reeves, management cited a failure to mark one employee as absent on particular days; however, Reeves later introduced evidence that he was in the hospital on those days, and therefore, was not responsible for the error. Further, Reeves countered with evidence that he was not responsible for the errors found during the 1995 audit, offering evidence that those errors were not attributed to poor work performance. Specifically, Reeves argued that Sanderson's automated time card system did not always operate properly. Thus, Reeves and the other supervisor improvised by visually checking the employee stations at the start of work and then manually logging the employees' time cards. Both supervisors used this system even if some of the employees actually arrived earlier in the morning.7

At trial the defense twice moved for a judgment as a matter of law, but the court allowed the case to go to the jury resulting in a $35,000 award to Reeves. Following the award Sanderson filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law and, in the alternative, for a new trial. The court denied the motion. At the same time the court granted Reeves' motion for front pay in the amount of $28,490 and increased the jury verdict by $35,000 in liquidated damages based on the jury's finding that Sanderson's discriminatory actions were willful.8

On Sanderson's appeal the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed.9 The court of appeals held that Reeves failed to introduce evidence sufficient for a jury to conclude his termination resulted from age-based discrimination.10 While the court noted that Reeves may have introduced sufficient evidence for a trier of fact to find generalized age-based animus, the court stated, "We must, as an essential final step, determine whether Reeves presented sufficient evidence that his age motivated Sanderson's employment decision."11 The appeals court "confined its review of evidence favoring [Reeves] to that evidence showing that Chesnut had directed derogatory, age-based comments at [Reeves], and that Chesnut had singled out [Reeves] for harsher treatment than younger employees."12 The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.13

II. Legal History

A. The ADEA Framework

The ADEA makes it "unlawful for an employer—(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual [over the age of forty] or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual's age."14 In the statute Congress provided that juries may hear ADEA cases,15 noting that defending age-based claims can be particularly challenging because the defense often must confront sympathetic juries.16 Accordingly, defense attorneys invoke the procedural devices of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, principally making use of summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 ("Rule 56")17 and judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 ("Rule 50")18 to minimize the number of ADEA cases that reach a jury or withstand post-verdict scrutiny.19

Although a few ADEA plaintiffs introduce "smoking gun" evidence that a court will characterize as direct evidence, most plaintiffs must rely on circumstantial evidence.20 To facilitate elusive proof of employer motive in circumstantial cases, courts deciding motions in ADEA cases under Rule 56 or Rule 50 have consistently applied the counterpart Title VII framework ordering the presentation of evidence in circumstantial cases, as first elaborated in McDonnell Douglas v. Green,21 which Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine22 refined.23

In McDonnell Douglas, the plaintiff, an African-American male, worked as a mechanic and laboratory technician for McDonnell Douglas until 1964, when his employment was terminated during a general reduction in the total work force. Green, an avowed civil rights activist, claimed that his termination was motivated by race. In protest Green blocked the entrance road to the plant with his vehicle to impede the traffic flow during a shift change. Only three weeks after Green's protest, he observed an advertisement for mechanics listed by McDonnell Douglas. Green applied for the position, but did not receive the job. AtGreen's Title VII bench trial, in which he alleged, among other things, a race based refusal to rehire, the judge found the employer's assertion that Green was not hired because of his unlawful protest after his termination to be reasonable.24 The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Green's protests were not "protected activities," but reversed the district court's dismissal of Green's claim relating to racially discriminatory hiring practices.25

On McDonnell Douglas' appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court applied a three-stage analytical framework, announcing that the plaintiff has the initial burden to establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination.26 Under the framework plaintiffs may establish a prima facie case of discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence showing, "(i) that [plaintiff] belong[ed] to [the protected class]; (ii) that [plaintiff] applied and was qualified for a job for which the employer was seeking applicants; (iii) that, despite [plaintiff's] qualifications, [plaintiff] was rejected; and (iv) that, after [plaintiff's] rejection, the position remained open and the employer continued to seek applicants from persons of [plaintiff's] qualifications."27 However, the Court noted that these initial showings, especially element four, should not be construed as a requisite for all cases under all fact patterns.28 On plaintiff's showing of a prima facie case, the defendant has the burden to "articulate some legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the employee's rejection."29

The third stage of analysis places on the plaintiff the ultimate burden in the case of proving disparate race-based treatment, and he must "demonstrate by competent evidence that the presumptively valid reasons for his rejection were in fact a coverup for a racially discriminatory decision."30 Plaintiff must be given a "full and fair opportunity," either during her case in chief or on rebuttal, to make this showing.31 The Court suggested that plaintiff could do so by offering a wide variety of evidence including that white employees were not punished for the "stall in," that plaintiff suffered race-based treatment during plaintiff's prior period of employment, or through statistical evidence that the employer discriminated against plaintiff's protected group.32

In Burdine the Supreme Court refined the McDonnell Douglas framework.33 Defendant, Texas Department of Community Affairs ("TDCA"), hired Burdine to work as an accounting clerk within the Public Service Commission ("PSC"). In 1972 Burdine was promoted to field services coordinator. Shortly after...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT