Court Evaluates Strength of Prima Facie and Pretext Evidence In Upholding Summary Judgment
by Michael Fox
Whether or not a defendant can get summary judgment is at the heart of most of employment cases. Once summary judgment is defeated, a new calculus enters into the settlement discussions, the jury. The Supreme Court's decision in Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., (U.S. 2000), was widely seen as making summary judgment more unlikely. It held that it was sufficient to defeat summary judgment if you could establish a prima facie case and had some evidence of pretext.
However, part of the decision gives courts wishing to grant or uphold summary judgment some room, and an opportunity to evaluate the evidence, even on summary judgment:
Whether judgment as a matter of law is appropriate in any particular case will depend on a number of factors. Those include the strength of the plaintiff's prima facie case, the probative value of the proof that the employer's explanation is false, and any other evidence that supports the employer's case and that properly may be considered on a motion for judgment as a matter of law.
In Girten v. McRentals, Inc.
(8th Cir. 7/25/03), the Court did as suggested in evaluating the proof of plaintiff's age case. Noting there was only a 9 year age difference between the plaintiff and the replacement (62 to 53) the Court concluded the prima facie case was weak, and that there was little in the way of evidence that the reason given for the termination was not truly believed, even if it may have been wrong. In short, after quoting the Reeves
language above, the court upheld summary judgment holding, "Because the plaintiffs have not made a strong prima facie case and the evidence of pretext is virtually non-existent, no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the defendant discriminated on the basis of age." One more summary judgment survival.