Termination as Part of Reduction in Force Upheld

By Jessica D. Osborne March 24, 2021
businessman packing a box

A termination conducted as part of a large-scale reduction in force was proper, despite the former employee's allegations of disability-related discrimination and retaliation, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided.

From 2007 to November 2015, the plaintiff worked as a principal scientist for Biogen, a pharmaceutical company that develops, markets and manufactures therapies for various rare diseases.

From July to October 2014, the plaintiff took protected medical leave for an "acute mental episode," which caused him to lodge a number of seemingly paranoid but unsupported complaints regarding his supervisor, including that he felt unsafe around the supervisor. The plaintiff's leaders recognized that he was in crisis and worked to connect him with appropriate resources before his leave commenced.

The plaintiff returned to work in October 2014 with no restrictions or accommodations. He worked on an innovation project without issue, although his relationship with his immediate supervisor was strained—largely based on delivery and reception of constructive feedback.

In August 2015, Biogen conducted a companywide restructuring and strategy change, which led to a reduction in force of more than 880 employees, including the plaintiff and 24 of his departmental colleagues. Biogen informed the plaintiff that he was selected for reduction in part because Biogen was no longer prioritizing or investing in the overall innovation work that the plaintiff was responsible for. Following the reduction in force, Biogen continued research similar to what the plaintiff had been doing prior to his separation. Three months after the plaintiff's separation, Biogen advertised two positions related to the continued research. The plaintiff was not hired for either position, although a dispute existed as to whether he was qualified for the positions.

In 2016, the plaintiff sued Biogen Inc., alleging several federal and state claims, including discrimination and harassment because of disability. After the federal district court granted summary judgment to Biogen on all the plaintiff's claims, the plaintiff appealed.

The 1st Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision, concluding that the plaintiff failed to establish that the employer's stated business reasons for the reduction in force were pretextual or that its true reasoning was discriminatory based on disability. The court also found that the plaintiff failed to establish a hostile work environment to support a claim of disability harassment.

The 1st Circuit found that the plaintiff's claims of disability-based discrimination and retaliation failed because Biogen demonstrated a legitimate business reason for the reduction in force.

The plaintiff attempted to refute Biogen's business reason by arguing that the company's discriminatory motive was demonstrated by its continued engagement in innovative research after his termination, and its hiring of two positions to support that work.

The 1st Circuit was not persuaded by this evidence. The court noted that a mere showing that a former employee's work has been consolidated or allocated to other employees does not create a reasonable inference of an employer's discriminatory motive. The court observed that Biogen underwent a large-scale reduction in force that was part of an overall company strategy change. The plaintiff was far from singled out, as over 880 of his colleagues were also laid off.  

With respect to the plaintiff's hostile work environment claim—that is, that he was harassed based on his disability—much of the alleged unlawful conduct fell outside the applicable statute of limitations, and what remained was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive environment, or unlawfully motivated.

Brader v. Biogen Inc., 1st Cir., No. 19-1268 (Dec. 18, 2020).

Professional Pointer: This case serves as a useful reminder of the benefit of having larger-scale, neutrally applied decisions when implementing structural changes and reductions in force, including neutral decision-makers.

Jessica D. Osborne is an attorney with Bullard Law, the Worklaw Network® member firm in Portland, Ore.



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