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Soto-Feliciano v. Villa Cofresi Hotels, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

February 20, 2015

ADDIEL SOTO-FELICIANO, Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
VILLA COFRESÍ HOTELS, INC. AND SANDRA Y. CARO, Defendants, Appellees

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO. Hon. Juan M. Pérez-Giménez, U.S. District Judge.

Juan M. Frontera-Suau, with whom Carlos J. Jimé nez-Torres and Frontera Suau Law Offices, PSC, were on brief, for appellant.

Israel Roldán-González for appellees.

Before Torruella, Lipez and Barron, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

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BARRON, Circuit Judge.

More than a decade ago, Addiel Soto-Feliciano began working in the kitchen at the Villa Cofresí Hotel, a beachfront, family-run establishment in Rincón, Puerto Rico. By January of 2010, Soto had become the hotel's head chef. By March of that year, he had been fired. This appeal turns on the events that led to that outcome. Soto alleges that a review of the record reveals that he was fired because of his age and in retaliation for his efforts to assert his rights against this alleged discrimination. The District Court disagreed and granted summary judgment for the defendants. We reverse.

I.

On November 4, 2010, Soto filed suit in federal court. He named as defendants the Villa Cofresí Hotel and Sandra Caro, the hotel's general manager in charge of human resources. Soto alleged violations of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § § 621-634, and Puerto Rico employment law, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, § 146 (anti-discrimination); id. § 185 (wrongful termination). Soto sought back pay, lost benefits, compensatory damages, liquidated damages, attorney's fees, and an order directing the hotel to reinstate him and to cease discriminating against him on account of age.

In September of 2013, the District Court granted summary judgment for the defendants. The District Court then dismissed Soto's federal claims with prejudice and his state-law claims without prejudice. Soto now appeals that judgment. We discuss the relevant facts in connection with our analysis.

II.

We review the District Court's summary judgment ruling de novo. Cracchiolo v. E. Fisheries, Inc., 740 F.3d 64, 69 (1st Cir. 2014). In doing so, we " consider[] the record and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving part[y]." Estate of Hevia v. Portrio Corp., 602 F.3d 34, 40 (1st Cir. 2010). We may decide in favor of the moving party -- here, the hotel and Sandra Caro -- " only if the record reveals 'that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Avery v. Hughes, 661 F.3d 690, 693 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)).

III.

We begin with Soto's age discrimination claim under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. See 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). In a case that relies

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only on indirect evidence of discrimination, as Soto concedes this one does, we follow the familiar three-stage framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). We do so even though the Supreme Court " has not definitively decided whether the evidentiary framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973), utilized in Title VII cases is appropriate in the ADEA context." Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 175 n.2, 129 S.Ct. 2343, 174 L.Ed.2d 119 (2009). And that is because our Circuit " has long applied the McDonnell Douglas framework to ADEA cases." Vélez v. Thermo King de Puerto Rico, Inc., 585 F.3d 441, 447 n.2 (1st Cir. 2009).

A.

The first stage of the inquiry concerns whether the plaintiff has made a prima facie case of age discrimination. See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. The plaintiff's burden at this stage is " modest." Rathbun v. Autozone, Inc., 361 F.3d 62, 71 (1st Cir. 2004). He need only make a prima facie case, not a winning one. To make that threshold showing, the plaintiff must " show that: 1) he was at least 40 years old at the time he was fired; 2) he was qualified for the position he had held; 3) he was fired, and 4) the employer subsequently filled the position, demonstrating a continuing need for the plaintiff's services." Vélez, 585 F.3d at 447.

A plaintiff who meets the " low standard of showing prima facie discrimination," Zapata-Matos v. Reckitt & Colman, Inc., 277 F.3d 40, 44 (1st Cir. 2002), " in effect creates a presumption that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee," St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506, 113 S.Ct. 2742, 125 L.Ed.2d 407 (1993) (quoting Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981)). In consequence of that presumption, at the second stage of the inquiry, the burden of production shifts to the employer. To meet that burden, " the employer must articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason" for having taken the adverse employment action. Zapata-Matos, 277 F.3d at 44. If the employer offers such a reason, then we move to the third and final stage of the inquiry. At this stage, the plaintiff must " prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination." Vélez, 585 F.3d at 447-48 (quoting Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 143, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000)). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, though, the plaintiff need only show that his ability to meet that burden turns on a genuine issue of material fact. See Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253 (distinguishing between " the plaintiff's ultimate and intermediate burdens," respectively); Mesnick v. Gen. Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816, 824-25 (1st Cir. 1991).

B.

We start with the first stage of the inquiry. The District Court concluded Soto made a prima facie case of age discrimination that was strong enough to shift the burden of production to the defendants. We agree.

Soto was at least forty years of age at the time of his suspension and firing, which occurred on March 2 and March 10, 2010, respectively. And the record shows that, after firing Soto, the hotel immediately divided his head-chef duties among Jesú s

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Vargas (who worked in the kitchen) and Soto's two previous direct supervisors, Héctor Pérez-Vélez (the restaurant and kitchen manager) and Héctor Méndez (the food and beverage manager). The record thus sufficiently supports Soto's contention that, at the time of the firing, the hotel had a continuing need for Soto's former duties. See Hidalgo v. Overseas Condado Ins. Agencies, Inc., 120 F.3d 328, 333-34 (1st Cir. 1997) (plaintiff may demonstrate continuing need for his services with evidence showing that plaintiff's job functions were absorbed by several employees of defendant); Kale v. Combined Ins. Co. of Am., 861 F.2d 746, 760 (1st Cir. 1988) (same).

The record also provides sufficient support for Soto's further contention that he was qualified for his job. The record shows that Soto became head chef after working in the hotel's kitchen for a number of years. The record then shows that Soto held his job as head chef for at least a number of months. And, finally, the record shows that prior to his suspension, Soto had never received a formal written complaint from hotel management about his performance during his seven years of employment at the hotel. In light of the " low standard of showing prima facie discrimination," Zapata-Matos, 277 F.3d at 44, that evidence clearly suffices. See Meléndez v. Autogermana, Inc., 622 F.3d 46, 50-51 (1st Cir. 2010); Vélez, 585 F.3d at 448.

The defendants, however, contend Soto failed to make a prima facie showing that he was qualified. Specifically, the defendants contend the record shows that Soto used profanity to such an extent that it generated complaints from co-workers and possibly also customers; that he expressed a bad attitude toward his supervisors; that he was insubordinate to managers or supervisors on at least a handful of occasions; that he frequently arrived late for work; that he made at least one threatening remark to a supervisor; and that he disrespected a fellow staff member's religion. The defendants therefore contend that Soto failed to meet " the employer's legitimate expectations," Meléndez, 622 F.3d at 50, and thus cannot show that he was qualified for his job at the time of his firing, see id.

But the defendants' challenge to Soto's prima facie showing with respect to whether he was qualified cannot succeed. As the District Court observed, the defendants rely on the same evidence concerning Soto's misconduct to support a further argument -- namely, that even if Soto made the required prima facie showing, his suspension and firing had nothing to do with his age and everything to do with his bad behavior on the job. Our precedents make clear, however, that we may not credit the same evidence that an employer puts forth to show its legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing an employee to defeat that same employee's prima facie showing that he was qualified. " To do so would bypass the burden-shifting analysis and deprive the plaintiff of the opportunity to show that the nondiscriminatory reason was in actuality a pretext designed to mask discrimination." Vélez, 585 F.3d at 448 (quoting Wexler v. White's Fine Furniture, Inc., 317 F.3d 564, 574 (6th Cir. 2003) (en banc)).

We thus conclude that Soto has put forth a sufficient prima facie case of age discrimination to survive summary judgment. And so, we move ...


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