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Bill Fife v. MetLife Group, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 15, 2019

BILL FIFE, Plaintiff,



         This is an age discrimination suit brought by Plaintiff Bill Fife against Defendants MetLife Group, Inc. and MetLife, Inc. (collectively, “MetLife”). Fife alleges MetLife terminated his employment because of his age during a reduction in force in 2016 after fourteen years of strong performance. Fife brings claims of age discrimination under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA”), Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 151B. After a hearing and review of the record, this Court denied MetLife's first motion for summary judgment on June 4, 2019 (Docket No. 89). The Court found that there are genuine disputes of material fact as to whether MetLife considered Fife's proximity to retirement when terminating him at the age of sixty-four. The Court assumes familiarity with that opinion and will not revisit the issues addressed in it.

         During discovery, Fife learned that MetLife had considered Fife for a newly created position rather than terminating him, but ultimately didn't offer it to him. At Defendants' request, the Court permitted targeted discovery regarding this position (Docket No. 90). Following this discovery, MetLife has filed a renewed motion for summary judgment and the parties have submitted an avalanche of filings on this second bite of the apple. After a hearing, the Court DENIES Defendants' renewed motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 96).


         When all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the non-moving party, the record contains the following facts.

         I. Fife Hired by MetLife

         Bill Fife was hired by Travelers, an insurance company, in 2004. Fife became a MetLife employee in 2005, when MetLife acquired Travelers. In 2014, Fife was named Vice President of Strategic Relationship Management (“SRM”) & Divisional Sales Manager (“DSM”) for HSBC (a bank). As part of his SRM role, Fife supervised Eric Tompkins, who in turn supervised eight SRM employees. From February 2014 to February 2016, Fife reported to Kieran Mullins, who was then the Senior Vice President of Life and Disability Sales Third Party. In February 2016, Mullins was promoted, and Myles Lambert became Fife's direct supervisor.

         The Defendants have acknowledged that Fife was “always a strong performer.” Docket No. 119 at 24. For example, in Fife's 2014 performance assessment, Mullins described Fife as having an “outstanding year in 2014, ” Docket No. 119 at 33, in which Fife “exceeded sales goals, ” Id. at 29, and created new work practices which Mullins said would “be the cornerstone of our strategy for years going forward, ” Id. at 32.

         II. Fife's Retirement-Related Discussions Prior to 2016

         Prior to December 2015, Fife told Mullins that he had planned to retire around age sixty-five. However, in December 2015 or January 2016 he told Mullins that, because he was enjoying work and achieving good results, he had “no interest in retiring at 65” and wanted “to keep going.” Docket No. 99-8 at 7 (Fife II Tr. 43:19-44:16).

         Both Lambert and Tompkins believed Fife had retirement plans as of the spring of 2016. Lambert “was told” in the spring of 2016 about Fife “relinquishing some of his responsibilities to [Tompkins], in preparation of eventually transitioning into retirement.” Docket No. 114 at 52 (Lambert Tr. 42:14-43:4). Tompkins claims Fife commented “on several occasions about his retirement plans, ” as late as December of 2015, Docket No. 114 at 15 (Tompkins Tr. 46:1-8, 46:19-24, 48:5-12), but Fife denies ever discussing the issue with Tompkins, Docket No. 111 at ¶ 4. Tompkins further stated that in 2016 “there was a known quantity that Mr. Fife intended to retire at some point in time.” Docket No. 114 at 15 (Tompkins III Tr. 46:1-8).

         III. MetLife Spins Off U.S. Retail Life Insurance Business into Brighthouse Financial, Inc.

         In late 2016, MetLife spun off a portion of its U.S. retail business into a new company, Brighthouse Financial, Inc. Unlike MetLife's model of selling numerous insurance products through an insurance agent sales force, Brighthouse would initially focus on offering a smaller portfolio of insurance products through sales by third parties.

         MetLife conducted a reduction in force (“RIF”) and reorganization of leadership prior to the spin off of Brighthouse. In early 2016, Mullins was promoted, and Myles Lambert became Fife's direct supervisor. A few months later, on June 6, 2016, Lambert appointed Melissa Cox as National Sales Director for Third Party Distribution, making her Fife's direct supervisor.

         IV. Reduction in Force

         Lambert convened an offsite meeting around March 2016, which Tompkins, Cox, and Lauren Davis (a DSM) attended. According to Tompkins, the purpose of the meeting was to “start thinking what the new organization might look like, ” specifically for the third-party life insurance team. Docket No. 114 at 12 (Tompkins III Tr. 38:20-39:8). Tompkins signed a nondisclosure agreement regarding his work with Cox and Davis. MetLife employees Barry Higgins and Gretchen Bell were later added to the group. By July 13, 2016, there was a “core group which was the team of people that were looking at how we were going to structure distribution and strategically what we were going to do moving forward.” Id. at 6 (Tompkins III Tr. 15:20-23).

         In preparation for the transition to Brighthouse, Cox was tasked with decreasing the DSM headcount down to three. Cox did not review any of the DSM's prior performance reviews or sales metrics to assist her in deciding whom to retain. She also did not consult with Mullins, Fife's prior supervisor. at 11, 45 (Cox I Tr. at 33:8-20, 172:6-21). Cox explained that she wanted to “do [her] own due diligence and create [her] own perspective.” Docket No. 116 at 45 (Cox I Tr. at 172:10-12).

         Cox did discuss her direct reports with Tompkins. Cox solicited Tompkins' thoughts on Fife during an in-person conversation during the summer of 2016. (Cox Tr. I 157:3-158:10). According to Cox, during that conversation Tompkins said he “felt micromanaged, uncomfortable, felt like he had no means to progress in his career” because of Fife. Docket No. 116 at 42 (Cox Tr. I 157:5-7).

         V. Termination Timeline A. June 2016

         On June 9, Cox conducted a thirty-minute phone call with Fife. Cox felt that Fife was “making himself the center of attention, ” during the call, as she says is reflected in the words “prove, prove prove - look at me!” in her notes. Docket No. 70 at 24 (Cox II Tr. 11:19-12:13).

         On June 20, Tompkins emailed Lambert with a proposal for Brighthouse's SRM team. Tompkins' email identified several individuals who “st[ood] out as good fits” for the SRM team. Docket No. 98-1 at 2. Fife was listed first, with the notation “Firm Recruitment (maybe short term time horizon based on stated retirement ambitions-if so, would look to have him working closely with identified successor).” Id. That same day, Cox and Lambert conducted a phone call. Cox's notes from the call list “Fife-consultant 10k mo” under the header “DSM.” Docket No. 45-12 at 10.

         The next day, on June 21, Cox conducted a meeting with the DSMs. In a later deposition, Cox found Fife to be “aggressive, ” “forceful, ” and “bullying” during this meeting. Docket No. 116 at 17 (Cox I Tr. 57:11-21, 59:24). She claimed that Fife interrupted his colleagues and tried to make himself the center of attention. After the meeting, Cox texted Tompkins, “I do want to tell you about Rovner and fife given your prelim plan . . . I don't think my comments on fife will be any surprise. You will just have to rule with an iron fist.” Docket No. 62-4 at 28-29. Tompkins responded “Fife could help me get someone else ready.” Id. at 29.

         The following day, on June 22, Fife and Tompkins had a phone call. Tompkins asked Fife if it would be his preference to continue his work with HSBC (which fell under Fife's responsibilities as a DSM). Tompkins also told Fife that a potential role on Tompkins' team could include “focus on training and developing [an] eventual successor.” Docket No. 62-4 at 17. The next week, on June 28, Cox texted Tompkins, “I'm on a call with hr right now discussing my leadership team. Where are you with bill and Ron?” Docket No. 62-4 at 20. Tompkins responded “Feeling better about Bill than Ron. Meeting with Myles Friday.” Id.

         B. July 2016

         Cox decided exclude Plaintiff from the DSM team in either June or July 2016. The precise date is disputed. During her first deposition, Cox stated that she had made the decision to terminate Fife in July 2016. Cox explicitly denied that she had made the decision in June 2016. However, in her second deposition Cox indicated that she had made the decision by June 20, 2016.

         On July 6, a human resources employee at MetLife created a handwritten note labeled “Eric Tomkins 7/6/16” with the following phrases written underneath and in the margin: “Bill Fife-w/in retirement timeline? (12-18 mos.); “would need to select successor”; “Reports into Melissa now”; “Retirement benefits? Leave under Met or Newco?” Docket No. 45-21. The next day, Cox texted Tompkins and asked “What did you decide on Rovner and Fife?” Docket No. 62-4 at 32.

         On July 12, Tompkins emailed Libby Jackson, a HR employee at MetLife. Tompkins asked if Jackson had any additional information following their discussion on Fife, to which Jackson responded, “the question remains how we'll handle his transition ...

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