from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Tennessee at Winchester. No. 4:17-cv-00043-Harry
S. Mattice, Jr., District Judge.
Heather Moore Collins, Paige Lyle, COLLINS & HUNTER PLLC,
Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.
Cassandra M. Crane, FARRAR & BATES, LLP, Nashville,
Tennessee, for Appellee.
Before: McKEAGUE, BUSH, and NALBANDIAN, Circuit Judges.
NALBANDIAN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
sister circuit put it, an "employer may fire an employee
for a good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous
facts, or for no reason at all, as long as its action is not
for a discriminatory reason." Nix v. WLCY
Radio/Rahall Commc'ns, 738 F.2d 1181, 1187 (11th
Cir. 1984). The ADEA only prevents employers from terminating
an employee "because of such individual's age."
29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). Cynthia Miles was unhappy with
her at-will termination, so she filed this ADEA claim.
Because she has failed to establish a genuine dispute as to
pretext, we affirm the grant of summary judgment to her
former employer, South Central Human Resource Agency, Inc.
began her career with SCHRA in 1982 as a seasonal employee.
SCHRA is a Tennessee public nonprofit organization that
provides low-income individuals with a host of services
through its partnership with local, state, and federal
resources. After many promotions and reassignments, Miles
became Community Services Director in 2012. The Community
Services Director reports directly to the Executive
Director-SCHRA's Chief Executive-and is responsible for
overseeing six programs: Community Services Block Grant, Low
Income Energy Assistance, Social Services Block Grant,
Weatherization, Representative Payee, and DUI School. Each of
these programs, except for DUI school, has its own Director,
who reports to the Community Services Director. And in total,
the Community Services Director supervises between
thirty-five and forty SCHRA employees.
2011, the Tennessee Comptroller, Tennessee Bureau of
Investigation, and United States Department of Energy's
Office of Inspector General began to investigate SCHRA. The
investigation ultimately revealed several deficiencies,
including some within programs directly supervised by Miles.
The Comptroller's report noted "[q]uestionable
payments totaling $134, 992  in the Head Start and
Weatherization projects, plus abusive business practices
[between] a contractor and the agency" and
"[m]ultiple deficiencies  in the Community
Representative Payee Program." (R. 31-7, Investigative
Report at PageID # 119.) After the Comptroller provided the
report to SCHRA, but before public release of the report,
Executive Director James Coy Anderson resigned. SCHRA's
Board of Directors selected Paul Rosson as interim, and
ultimately permanent, Executive Director.
reviewed the Comptroller's findings and the responses
provided by SCHRA employees during the investigation. He was
especially concerned that Jim Reynolds, Director of Fiscal
Operations, and Lisa Williams, Assistant Director of Fiscal
Operations, admitted to wrongdoing. So he recommended their
termination to SCHRA's Board of Directors. The Board
accepted these recommendations and terminated both employees
on April 5, 2016.
days later, Rosson terminated Miles. At the time of
termination, Rosson told Miles that she was terminated
"at-will," "without notice and without
reason." (R. 31-8, Separation Notice at PageID # 150; R.
31-9, Termination Letter at PageID # 151.) Shortly after her
firing, Miles sent several emails to Rosson and other SCHRA
employees saying that she believed SCHRA fired her because of
the successful and nefarious efforts of her subordinates, and
that she intended vindictively to sue SCHRA to impose large
legal defense costs on the agency and the individuals.
case began when Miles filed a charge of age discrimination
with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
("EEOC"). In response to that charge, SCHRA, for
the first time, provided Miles with reasons for her
termination-her implication in misconduct by the
Comptroller's report and her toxic relationship with her
subordinates. The EEOC granted Miles a right to sue under the
ADEA and she filed her complaint in district court. During
discovery, SCHRA reaffirmed that it terminated Miles because
of her implication in misconduct by the Comptroller's
report and her toxic relationship with her subordinates.
SCHRA filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial
court granted. This appeal follows.
review a district court's grant of summary judgment de
novo to determine whether there is a genuine dispute as to
any material fact. Ciminillo v. Streicher, 434 F.3d
461, 464 (6th Cir. 2006). The ADEA prevents employers from
terminating an employee "because of such
individual's age." 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). In
interpreting that language this court has stated: "it is
not sufficient for the plaintiff to show that age was a
motivating factor in the adverse action; rather, the
ADEA's 'because of' language requires that a
plaintiff 'prove by a preponderance of the evidence
(which may be direct or circumstantial) that age was the
"but-for" cause of the challenged employer
decision.'" Scheick v. Tecumseh Pub. Sch.,
766 F.3d 523, 529 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Gross v. FBL
Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 177-78 (2009)). Miles
does not try to satisfy her burden with direct evidence.
Instead, she relies on circumstantial, or indirect, evidence.
In evaluating indirect evidence claims under the ADEA, this
court uses the well-established McDonnell Douglas
burden-shifting framework. Bender v. Hecht's
Dep't Stores, 455 F.3d 612, 620 (6th Cir. 2006).
Douglas first requires the plaintiff to establish a
prima facie case of discrimination. McDonnell Douglas
Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). If she can,
the burden shifts to the defendant, who must produce
legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the adverse
employment action. Id. And if the employer can
produce those reasons, the burden shifts back to the
plaintiff to establish that the proffered reasons are simply
pretext for age discrimination. Id. at 804. If the
plaintiff satisfies this third step, the factfinder may
reasonably infer discrimination. Moffat v. Wal-Mart
Stores, Inc., 624 Fed.Appx. 341, 349 (6th Cir. 2015).
SCHRA concedes that Miles can establish a prima facie case of
age discrimination. (Appellee's Br. at 21 n.5.) And Miles
does not contest the legitimacy or nondiscriminatory nature
of the reasons SCHRA offers as motivation for her firing. So
this appeal presents one question: is there a genuine dispute
about whether SCHRA's proffered rationales for
Miles's termination were pretextual?
satisfy her burden and survive summary judgment, Miles must
"produce sufficient evidence from which a jury could
reasonably reject [SCHRA's] explanation of why it fired
her." Chen v. Dow Chemical Co., 580 F.3d 394,
400 (6th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). This "is a
commonsense inquiry: did the employer fire the employee for
the stated reason or not?" Id. at 400 n.4. And
ultimately, this burden merges with Miles's overall
burden of proving discrimination. Provenzano v. LCI
Holdings, Inc., 663 F.3d 806, 812 (6th Cir. 2011).
typically show pretext in one of three ways: "(1) that
the proffered reasons had no basis in fact, (2) that the
proffered reasons did not actually motivate the
employer's action, or (3) that the proffered reasons were
insufficient to motivate the employer's action."
Chen, 580 F.3d at 400. But these are not the only
ways that a plaintiff can establish pretext; these three
categories are simply a "convenient way of marshaling
evidence and focusing it on the ultimate inquiry: 'did
the employer fire the employee for the stated reason or
not?'" Tingle v. Arbors at Hilliard, 692
F.3d 523, 530 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Chen, 580
F.3d at 400). So plaintiffs remain free to pursue arguments
outside these three categories. Even so, a plaintiff must
articulate some cognizable explanation of how the evidence
she has put forth establishes pretext. Miles fails to do
this. Instead, she simply identifies what she perceives to be
errors in the district ...