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California Age Discrimination Lawsuit Ruling Dismissed for Lack of Factual Support

In California, it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against workers based on their age when they make employment decisions. However, employees must be able to present evidence demonstrating that the reason for their terminations was discriminatory and not for a different, valid purpose. In Foroudi v. The Aerospace Corp., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B291302, the appeals court reviewed an age discrimination claim to evaluate whether the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to overcome his employer's stated nondiscriminatory purpose for terminating him.[1]

Factual and Procedural Background

David Foroudi was hired by The Aerospace Corp. in 2007, a non-profit company that provided technical analyses to government intelligence and defense agencies. Foroudi held degrees in computer and information science, mathematics and computer science, and industrial engineering and operations research. He was 55 years old at the time that he was hired as a senior project engineer. Mr. Foroudi was transferred to the company's navigation division in 2009 after his original program was canceled. In the navigation division, Foroudi was designated as a Level 3 senior project engineer and technical lead for the GPS/OCX program.

During Foroudi's annual performance evaluations in 2010 and 2011, he was counseled for his communication and interpersonal skills and told that he needed improvement in those areas despite meeting expectations. He was also counseled for failing to adhere to the company's corporate travel policies, but corrective action was not taken against him.

The employees had a collective bargaining agreement. Under its terms, The Aerospace Corp. ranked the employees for their skills, breadth of knowledge, and performance each year and ranked them. The employees were then placed in bins ranked from one to five based on their rankings with five being the worst. Foroudi was placed in bin five in 2010 and 2011 because of his interpersonal skills and his insufficient background in GPS navigation.

Late in 2011, there were proposed budget cuts at the Department of Defense that would significantly impact Aerospace's funding. This led the company to institute a company-wide reduction in force or layoff. Employees who were identified as eligible for the layoff included newly hired employees who had not been ranked and employees who were in bins four and five. Upper management then used a matrix to rank RIF-eligible employees based on their performance, expertise, skills, and bin ranking for the company's future anticipated work.

Foroudi was selected for the reduction in force based on his bin ranking, his interpersonal and communication skills, the fact that he had been counseled for violating the travel policy, and his lack of a strong background in applications used for GPS navigation. He was notified that he would be laid off as a part of the RIF in March 2012. After the company's governmental contract revenues decreased by $36 million in the fiscal year 2012, 306 employees were laid off as a part of the RIF, leaving 96 employees in Foroudi's former division. Out of the remaining employees, six were in their 30s, 24 were in their 40s, 46 were in their 50s, 17 were in their 60s, two were in their 70s, and one was in his 80s.

Foroudi's position was eliminated, and his duties were given to an employee named Van Nuth, a Level 2 engineer who was 14 years younger than Foroudi. Nuth had a Ph.D. in geophysics with a concentration in geodesy. Nuth was considered to be an expert by the division's supervisor in GPS satellite technology.

Foroudi filed a discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in 2013, alleging he had been discriminated against based on his age, national origin, and religion. His complaint did not state any specific allegations in support of his claims. He was given a right to sue letter by the DFEH the next day after the agency closed his case. After more than a year had passed, Foroudi filed an amended complaint with the DFEH, alleging that he had been discriminated against because he was a Muslim of Persian background and because he was older than age 60. He said non-Muslim, younger employees were not laid off. Foroudi also claimed that he had received excellent performance ratings before he received notice of the impending RFI and only then began receiving poor ratings. He also said that he had filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC in 2013. The EEOC sent him a right-to-sue letter in May 2014.

Foroudi joined with four other Aerospace employees to file a civil complaint in California alleging age discrimination, unfair competition, wrongful termination, and failing to prevent discrimination in Aug. 2014. He alleged that the RIF was pretextual and that it had a disparate impact on employees who were older than age 50. The plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint in Jan. 2015 to add an Age Discrimination in Employment Act cause of action and class allegations. The Aerospace Corp. then removed the case to federal court based on the federal cause of action and filed a motion to strike the class allegations and the disparate impact cause of action from the amended complaint. In April 2015, the federal court granted Aerospace's motion and found that the amended complaint did not allege disparate impact and did not state an intent to sue on behalf of a class of employees. Foroudi then dismissed his ADEA complaint, and the case was sent back to the state court.

Foroudi then asked the EEOC to allow him to add class allegations to his EEOC complaint. The EEOC then reopened his case and sent him a new right-to-sue letter. In April 2016, Foroudi contacted the DFEH and asked it to correct its documents based on the new EEOC right-to-sue letter. He then filed a new complaint with the DFEH, alleging that employees were discriminated against as a class based on age and that the company's facially neutral policy disparately impacted older workers.

The DFEH gave Foroudi a letter in June 2016 to confirm that he had filed a complaint and had been interviewed by a DFEH employee. The DFEH did not take any further action on his complaint and did not give him a new right-to-sue letter. Foroudi subsequently asked the court to allow him to file a second amended complaint to add class allegations and a disparate impact claim. Aerospace opposed the motion and filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that he had not exhausted the administrative remedies with the DFEH. The defendant argued that the EEOC right-to-sue letter did not replace the administrative remedies through the DFEH. The court granted the motion for summary judgment, and Foroudi filed an appeal.

Issue: Whether the court erred in granting the motion for summary judgment based on Foroudi's presentation of factual support for his claim?

On appeal, Foroudi argued that the trial court erred when it denied the admissibility of three exhibits he had submitted to oppose the motion for summary judgment. The three exhibits consisted of statistical information and two bar graphs to interpret the data. He tried to lay the foundation for the admissibility of the exhibits through the union president. However, he did not submit any evidence about who prepared the statistical information or try to present any foundation for the other two exhibits. Aerospace argued that the exhibits should not be admitted based on hearsay, a lack of foundation, and relevance. Foroudi argued that the court's denial of the exhibits was made in error. Foroudi also argued that he presented evidence to present a prima facie case. Aerospace argued that it had met its burden of proving that it relied on a nondiscriminatory reason for Foroudi's inclusion in the RIF.

Rule: Once a plaintiff presents a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that it relied on a nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse job action.

Under the rules, plaintiffs are required to present evidence showing a prima facie case of age discrimination.[2] The burden then shifts to the defendants to show that they did not rely on a discriminatory purpose but instead had a nondiscriminatory reason for making their adverse job decisions. Then, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to present substantial evidence showing that the nondiscriminatory reason given by the employer was pretextual or untrue.

Analysis

The court first reviewed the exhibits and found that the court did not commit error when it sustained Aerospace's objections to them. Foroudi did not present a proper foundation for the first exhibit or any foundation for the remaining two exhibits, so it was proper for the court to deem them inadmissible. The court then turned to the merits of the appeal.

Taking Foroudi's case in the light most favorable to him, the court assumed that he had presented a prima facie case of discrimination. It then looked at whether Aerospace had met its burden of proof that it relied on a nondiscriminatory reason for including Foroudi in the RIF. Once the employer presents evidence showing a nondiscriminatory purpose, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to present evidence that the claimed nondiscriminatory purpose was pretextual.

The court found that Aerospace met its burden to show that its reason was nondiscriminatory. Aerospace submitted evidence that it made its decision because of the severe revenue losses caused by the Department of Defense's budget cuts. It also presented evidence that Foroudi was among the lowest-ranked employees and did not have a sufficient background in GPS navigation.

The court then found that Foroudi did not meet his burden of presenting substantial evidence showing that the nondiscriminatory reason offered by Aerospace was pretextual. Foroudi argued that he had met his burden since his job duties were given to Nuth, who was 14 years younger than him. However, Nuth had a Ph.D. that was closely related to the job.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court's decision. The action was dismissed, and Aerospace was awarded its costs on appeal.

Talk to an Age Discrimination Lawyer at Steven M. Sweat, APC

Presenting a claim of age discrimination requires plaintiffs to present evidence beyond mere suspicion. If you believe that your employer engaged in unlawful discrimination against you based on your age, you should consult with an experienced attorney at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat, APC to learn about the merits of your claim. Contact us today by calling us at 866-966-5240.

Sources

[1] Foroudi v. The Aerospace Corp.

[2] Age Discrimination

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