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The Supreme Judicial Court Must Clarify What Evidence Plaintiffs Need to Present to Have Discrimination Cases Heard by a Jury

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), heard oral arguments for
Mark A. Adams v. Schneider Electric USA, Inc., an age discrimination lawsuit in which Monica Shah and I filed an amicus brief in support of Adams, on behalf of the Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association 

The Facts

Adams worked as an electrical engineer at Schneider Electric in Andover, Massachusetts from 2007 to 2017. On January 27, 2017, as part of a reduction-in-force (RIF), Schneider Electric laid off Adams, who was 54 years old at the time. As part of this RIF, Schneider Electric laid off seven other employees, all of whom were over 55 years old. There were two other RIFs at Schneider Electric within a year of Adams’ termination and of the 24 employees laid off, 23 of them were 44 years or older. Adams had strong performance reviews throughout his employment with Schneider Electric and when one of his direct supervisors discovered he was terminated, the supervisor asked for Schneider Electric to bring Adams back because Adams’ absence threatened the success of one of the supervisor’s projects; Schneider Electric declined to re-hire Adams. While Schneider Electric maintains that Adams’ termination of employment had nothing to do with his age and the person who fired Adams acted alone without influence from others at the company, Adams argues that there are several factors surrounding his termination that suggest he was discriminated against because of his age, including a Human Resources employee instructing the decision-maker who fired Adams to consider age when selecting candidates to terminate for the RIF. In addition, there was voluminous e-mail documentation between Schneider Electric employees discussing restructuring tactics that included letting go of older employees to make room for a younger workforce.  

 The Law on Summary Judgment 

The SJC’s decision in Adams will address a critical issue—the standard for discrimination cases at the summary judgment stage of a case. Employers file summary judgement motions when they want a case decided based on the evidence gathered before trial. To succeed at summary judgment, the employer must show there is no “genuine issue of material fact” with respect to the plaintiff’s (employee’s) claim. A genuine issue of material fact is a fact that has the potential to allow a jury to find in favor of the plaintiff bringing the lawsuit. A court deciding a summary judgment motion decides whether the case should proceed to trial and be heard by a jury to decide those disputed issues of fact. At summary judgment, the court views the facts in the light most favorable to the party that did not move for summary judgment. The court is not supposed to make findings of fact, it answers the question of whether there are any facts that need to be decided by a jury. Historically, Massachusetts courts have disfavored summary judgment in the context of discrimination cases because the determination of whether the employer had discriminatory intent is a factual question to be decided by a jury. 

 The Adams Decisions 

In 2020, a judge in the Massachusetts Superior Court granted Schneider Electric’s motion for summary judgement. Adams appealed. In 2022, a five-judge panel of the Massachusetts Court of Appeals reversed the Superior Court’s decision in a three to two decision. The Appeals Court judges disagreed as to whether Adams presented enough evidence for a jury to find that Schneider Electric’s non-discriminatory reason for his termination was false. The majority held that based on the record, there were facts in dispute from which a jury could find that Schneider Electric unlawfully considered age in either its implementation of the RIF or in its selection of Adams for the RIF, even though Adams did not present explicit evidence that specifically challenged the decision-maker’s neutral business reason for Adams’ termination. Despite Schneider Electric’s assertion that that age was not a factor in the RIF or Adams’ termination, the majority emphasized that a jury is not required to take Schneider Electric’s explanations at face value; thus, there was a genuine issue of material fact about whether age was a factor in implementation of the RIF or in Adams’ termination. The dissent disagreed and took the testimony of the decision-maker who terminated Adams at face-value and emphasized that all of Adams’ circumstantial evidence, including but not limited to the written email documentation between employees about letting go of older workers in favor of younger ones, was insufficient for a jury to find that Schneider Electric’s non-discriminatory reason for Adams’ termination was false. Under the dissent’s view, the standard for plaintiffs to survive summary judgement would be heightened by requiring plaintiffs to show direct evidence that a decision-maker had a discriminatory motivation when making the decision, rather than allowing a jury to decide whether all of the evidence gathered was sufficient to make that finding.    

 What Comes Next  

Schneider Electric petitioned the SJC for further appellate review, which is how the case arrived at the state’s highest court. There are far-reaching implications for employment law if the SJC does not affirm the Court of Appeals’ decision to reverse the grant of summary judgment. A standard that requires a plaintiff to provide direct evidence of unlawful motive by an employer contradicts the reality that it is nearly impossible to provide direct evidence that an employer unlawfully discriminated against an employee; an employer will always present a non-discriminatory explanation for its decision. For years our courts have held that it is the role of the jury to assess whether that explanation for the employer’s decision is credible, or whether it’s pretext and the real motivation was discriminatory. The SJC must affirm the Court of Appeals’ decision to preserve the right of employees to have their discrimination claims heard by a jury.  

If you have been subjected to discrimination or retaliation in the workplace contact our employment attorneys at (617) 742-6020.  

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