An in-house attorney failed to persuade the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that his termination for sending unrequited romantic poems to a co-worker violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
At issue in the case was whether other evidence—that the attorney’s supervisor had made age-biased comments and that the attorney had made an internal age discrimination complaint 18 months before his termination—sufficed to permit a jury to hear the case.
David Bennett began working for Saint-Gobain’s corporate predecessor in 1989 as a patent counsel. (Saint-Gobain later acquired Bennett’s employer, and Bennett continued in his position.) In 1999, Bennett began reporting to Timothy Feagans, Saint-Gobain’s deputy general counsel.
While Bennett was deemed a competent patent attorney, he had occasional run-ins with his management, including John Mesher, the company general counsel. Mesher, Feagans and others periodically communicated on e-mail about Bennett’s problematic attitude and demeanor, despite Bennett’s otherwise good performance.
In June 2001, Bennett joined with other members of the legal department’s intellectual property (IP) group to file an internal grievance against Feagans, alleging age discrimination. The group cited evidence that Feagans had made statements to at least one grievant that he wanted to get rid of the “older members” of the IP group.
A company investigation led by Saint-Gobain’s vice-president for human resources, however, disclosed no evidence of discrimination and the matter was dropped.
In 2002, Bennett was given a higher performance rating than in 2001 and he was consequently given a salary increase.
During this same time period, another Saint-Gobain employee, Diana Henchey, received anonymous, sexually suggestive written poems through the company’s internal mail system on four different occasions. By the fall of 2002, Henchey suspected that Bennett could be the culprit and reported this to the company. Henchey had met Bennett and knew that he spoke with a British accent and the poems themselves contained certain words spelled in a distinctively British fashion.
Based on these suspicions, the legal department’s HR representative engaged a security officer, who in turn worked with an outside handwriting expert to investigate the matter and determine whether Bennett had written the poems. Unbeknownst to Feagans, they confronted Bennett on Oct. 31, 2002, but he denied ever writing poems or knowing Henchey. A search of his office uncovered other poems he had written, however, and Bennett, when asked, spelled the word “meager” for them in the British fashion “m-e-a-g-r-e”—exactly as it appeared in one of the poems Henchey received.
The team concluded from this that Bennett had authored and sent the poems to Henchey, and it reported this conclusion to Mesher. Mesher decided to terminate Bennett and did so without consulting or otherwise advising Feagans of the situation. Bennett was 64 when he was fired.
Bennett thereafter filed a lawsuit against Saint-Gobain, Mesher and Feagans in federal district court in Massachusetts. He alleged, among other things, that his termination was motivated by age bias and retaliation for his June 2001 age discrimination grievance. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants and dismissed Bennett’s case, however, finding that Mesher’s conclusion that Bennett had authored the poems was reasonable. The court also noted that the termination could not have been in retaliation for Bennett’s June 2001 age discrimination complaint because too much time passed between the complaint and his termination and because Bennett was given a positive performance evaluation and a raise after the complaint.
On appeal to the 1st Circuit, Bennett argued that the district court should have considered evidence that Feagans, his supervisor, had made age-biased comments. Bennett also argued that the court should have presumed that Mesher’s decision was somehow influenced by Feagans, thus offering a way to connect Feagans’s apparent bias to the termination decision. The appeals court rejected both arguments, however, concluding that there was simply no evidence that Mesher terminated Bennett for any other reason than his reasonable belief that Bennett sent the poems to Henchey.
The appeals court also agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that Bennett’s June 2001 grievance was too far in the past to have motivated his discharge, particularly since Bennett was evaluated favorably following the grievance.
Bennett v. Saint-Gobain Corp ., 1st Cir., No. 07-1219 (Nov. 2, 2007).
Professional Pointer: The primary reason the court determined that Bennett was not the victim of discrimination or retaliation appears to be its conclusion that Mesher’s belief that Bennett had sent the poems was reasonable. In other words, the company could show that it investigated the matter and found reasonable evidence to support its conclusions—the British spellings, finding other poems in Bennett’s office, etc. It is imperative in a discrimination lawsuit that companies be able to show that legitimate reasons were behind their decisions; otherwise, the employee’s allegation of discrimination could be uncontradicted.
James B. Thelen is an attorney with the law firm Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC in Lansing, Mich.
Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.