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Brown v. /Mars

decided: July 6, 1989; As Amended, August 18, 1989.

EDWARD J. BROWN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
M&M/MARS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 84 C 7554 -- Barbara B. Crabb, Judge.

Cummings, Coffey and Manion, Circuit Judges.

Author: Manion

MANION, Circuit Judge

M&M/Mars (Mars) fired Edward Brown on July 1, 1983. Brown was 47 years old. Brown sued Mars, alleging that Mars had fired him because of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. ยงยง 621-634. A jury found that Mars had discriminated against Brown because of his age. The jury also found that Mars' discrimination was willful and therefore doubled Brown's damages. The district court denied Mars' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Mars appeals, contending that the evidence was insufficient to show age discrimination, that the district court improperly instructed the jury on willfulness, and that Brown's damages must be reduced. We affirm the jury's finding of age discrimination but we remand for a new trial on willfulness and we reduce Brown's damage award.

I.

In an age discrimination case, a plaintiff must prove that age was a determining factor in, or, in other words, a "but for" cause of an adverse employment decision. See, e.g., Maguire v. Marquette University, 814 F.2d 1213, 1216 (7th Cir. 1987); Mathewson v. National Automatic Tool Co., 807 F.2d 87, 89 (7th Cir. 1986).*fn1 A plaintiff may attempt to prove discrimination by introducing direct evidence that age was a determining factor or by employing the shifting burdens framework the Supreme Court first set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973). See Kier v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 808 F.2d 1254, 1257 (7th Cir. 1987). But at this stage of the case, after a full trial on the merits, we need not concern ourselves about the method of proof Brown used. The only question for us to answer is whether there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that age was a determining factor in Mars' decision to fire Brown. Id.; cf. United States Postal Service Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S. 711, 713-14, 75 L. Ed. 2d 403, 103 S. Ct. 1478 (1983). In making that determination, we must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences from it in the light most favorable to Brown. See Tice v. Lampert Yards, Inc., 761 F.2d 1210, 1213 (7th Cir. 1985).

After having worked in Mars' Chicago candy plant since 1961, Brown became "shift manager" of B shift, the plant's afternoon shift, in July 1978. About an hour after B shift started on June 14, 1983, workers had to shut down line 9 (one of the plant's production lines) when a relief operator inadvertently flooded the line's caramel cookers after failing to notice that a water valve was incorrectly positioned. The workers on line 9 made several attempts to restart the line during B shift but were unable to do so before the shift ended. Workers on C shift (the plant's "graveyard" shift) were finally able to restart the line about one and one-half hours after their shift started.

Richard Vincent, the Chicago plant's production manager and Brown's direct supervisor, found out about the "down-time incident" the next day. By Friday, June 17, Vincent had decided to remove Brown from his position as B shift manager. On July 1, 1983, Vincent, after investigating the incident and consulting with Vera Blanchet, the plant's Personnel Director, fired Brown.

Mars contends that it fired Brown because of a series of problems with Brown's performance as B shift manager that culminated in the June down-time incident, and that no reasonable jury could believe otherwise. The record does contain evidence from which the jury could have found Brown's performance led to his firing. Vincent testified that Brown consistently, and at times antagonistically, resisted the changes in operating procedures that Vincent attempted to implement to make the Chicago plant more efficient and profitable. Vincent also testified that Brown did not work well with other shift managers, that Brown did not properly train and delegate responsibility to subordinates, and that Brown lacked flexibility in solving problems. During the time Vincent was Brown's direct supervisor -- August 1980 until Brown's firing -- Vincent's written evaluations of Brown touched on these problems.

According to Vincent, the down-time incident led to Brown's firing because it directly resulted from Brown's deficiencies as a manager. Vincent described the incident as a "comedy of errors" caused by "people problems." According to Vincent, properly trained employees should have been able to restart line 9 well before B shift ended. Vincent said he was especially displeased with the performance of Matt Armstrong, the Mars employee who directly supervised line 9 on the B shift. In fact, Vincent had earlier stated to Brown that Armstrong was incapable of running line 9 and had suggested that Brown either transfer, demote, or fire Armstrong.

Mars witnesses also stated that if Brown's subordinates could not solve the problem on line 9, then Brown himself should have become more actively involved. On the night of the down-time incident, Brown was working on a project involving another production line and only briefly visited line 9 once after learning about the problem on the line. Bill Benzinger, the A shift manager, testified that when he asked Brown why he had not become more involved, Brown replied, "Well, Dick [Vincent] wanted me to give my supervisors more responsibility, and so I did." According to Mars, this statement demonstrates Brown's recalcitrant and antagonistic attitude toward Vincent and the changes Vincent was trying to implement.

Based on this evidence, Mars argues that the jury had no choice but to reject Brown's claim. But Mars argues as if the jury was required to believe its version of events. The jury was not; and the record discloses ample evidence from which the jury could have found that Mars' asserted reasons for firing Brown were pretextual.

Brown introduced evidence from which the jury could believe that he was a loyal, conscientious worker and an effective manager. Brown's shift consistently produced more candy and controlled scrap and product quality better than the other two shifts. The jury also could have concluded that Brown's shift was more profitable than the other two shifts.

Mars protests that the evidence of Brown's productivity is not probative of pretext because it does not directly address the specific reasons for which Mars claims it fired Brown: his resistance to change, his inflexibility in problem-solving, his failure to train and delegate responsibility to subordinates, and his antagonistic attitude. To a certain extent this is true. A company has a right to expect not only that its employees be productive but that they be productive in the company's way. But a relationship between a plant's or an individual shift's productivity and its supervisor's managerial skills normally exists. The jury could reasonably infer that B shift could not have been as productive as it was if Brown really was inflexible and negative, or poorly trained his subordinates. Poorly trained and motivated workers do ...


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