N.J.: Employee with Brain Tumor Legitimately Fired for Poor Job Performance

By Diane Cadrain Jan 15, 2015
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An employee who discovered at age 50 that he had a brain tumor was nevertheless legitimately fired for his poor work performance, a N.J. federal court decided.

Michael Mirabella started working for Oasis Foods, a manufacturer of soy products, in February 2011, when he was 49. He worked out of his home office in Rochester, N.Y., but the company was headquartered in New Jersey.

Mirabella’s supervisors started having problems with his job performance almost from the start of his employment. One supervisor, Mike Metrokotsas, complained that Mirabella didn’t follow instructions and acted ineffectively in response to customer concerns. Metrokotsas and another supervisor, Anthony Alves, thought that Mirabella’s work load was too sparse and that he wasn’t proactive enough in handling his accounts. The company considered terminating him in December 2011because of his insufficient attention to his customers, but instead it pulled him off of all of his accounts and gave him a different position. The problems continued, though.

On Jan. 27, 2012, Mirabella learned that he had a benign brain tumor near his left ear. He had been unaware of the problem before his diagnosis. He told Metrokotsas about the diagnosis on the same day he received it. Around that time, Metrokotsas asked Mirabella to devise a sales plan for his new position. Mirabella did the work, but Metrokotsas found his marketing plans lacking in detail and specificity and was dissatisfied with his schedule and his plans for meeting with, and cultivating, customers.

Oasis finally fired Mirabella at the end of February 2012, when he was 50. He sued the company for disability and age discrimination. Oasis asked the court to dismiss the claims at an early stage.

On the disability discrimination claim, the court looked at the evidence and concluded, for the sake of argument, that Mirabella had made out a good initial claim. That is, he had demonstrated that he was disabled, that he performed his job satisfactorily, and that the circumstances of his firing give rise to an inference of discrimination. In response to this showing, Oasis was required to show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. The company showed that Mirabella’s job performance was poor and that he was consistently the source of frustration and dissatisfaction at work. It was then Mirabella’s duty to present evidence showing that Oasis’ actions were a pretext for discrimination.

The court replied, “[a]fter a careful review of the record, the Court finds not even a scintilla of evidence which would suggest that [Oasis] fired [Mirabella] due to his disability, or that dissatisfaction with his work was pretextual. In making that finding, the Court notes the extensive history …which illustrates that [Mirabella’s] direct supervisor was displeased with [his] work and communication long before anyone learned of [his] condition.”

Before the brain tumor diagnosis, the court added, the supervisors were discouraged enough by his performance to consider firing him in December 2011. “The management's desire to fire [him] cannot have been caused by a diagnosis which came after that desire was articulated in writing,” the court said, ruling that Mirabella had failed to demonstrate pretext.

On the age discrimination claim, the court similarly noted, for purposes of analysis, that Mirabella made out a good initial showing by demonstrating that he was within the protected age group, qualified for the position, and discharged under circumstances suggesting age discrimination. Oasis in response was required to show a nondiscriminatory reason for its action, and pointed again to Mirabella’s dismal work performance.

The court concluded that the evidence showed that the termination was the endpoint of a long history of frustration with Mirabella’s work habits and relaxed work load. It also added that Oasis hired him when he was forty-nine and fired him when he was fifty. “That [Mirabella] was practically the same age when he was brought on and let go intuitively undermines the idea that age was his problem,” the court stated.

The court granted Oasis’ motion to dismiss the claims.

Mirabella v. Oasis Foods, D. N.J.,Civil Action No. 12-6218 (SRC) (Dec. 18, 2014).

Diane Cadrain is an attorney who has been writing about employment law issues for more than 20 years.

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