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Miles v. South Central Human Resource Agency, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

January 7, 2020

Cynthia Miles, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
South Central Human Resource Agency, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal 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.

         ON BRIEF:

          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.

          OPINION

          NALBANDIAN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         As our 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. ("SCHRA").

         I.

         Miles 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.

         In 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.

         Rosson 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.

         Ten 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.

         This 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.

         II.

         We 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).

         McDonnell 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?

         To 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).

         Plaintiffs 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 ...


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