AARP’s brief supported an older worker whose employer gave shifting accounts of his work performance.
Jerrell Squyres is the former president and sole owner of JPS Corporation, whose assets were purchased by Heico Companies. Heico retained Squyres as the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for three years with an automatic extension for another year unless either party gave notice of intent not to extend.
Squyres’ tenure was marred with disputes over business expenses. Heico opted not to renew Squyres’ employment agreement at the end of the three years and instead proposed Squyers work as an independent sales representative, with a reduced salary and on a contract basis only.
Squyers sued, alleging violations of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and its state counterpart, the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). As the litigation proceeded, Heico also offered the following explanations for Squyres’ termination: an interest in reducing costs and a concern (though this sometimes conflicted with Heico’s own evidence) that Squyres provided little value to the company and had difficulty transitioning from owner to employee.
Squyres argued that he added value by training younger personnel and using high level industry contacts to make substantial sales. He also alleged that Heico excluded him from sales meetings and company functions, omitted him on organization charts, referred to him as “old man” and subjected him to stricter scrutiny than younger employees regarding business expenses.
A federal district court granted Heico’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the lawsuit without a trial.
AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief, filed by AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys, pointed out the difference in burdens of proof between the federal ADEA and state TCHRA. Under the ADEA, the employee must prove that his age was a “but-for” cause of his termination, that is, he must show that his age made a difference in the employer’s decision to terminate him. Under the TCHRA, the employee has the much lighter burden of showing that age was “a motivating factor” in the employer’s decision. AARP’s brief argued that the shifting reasons given by Heico for not renewing Squyres’ contract and for offering him only a dismissal or demotion, and the court’s acknowledgement of the conflicting facts should have required that the case to go to trial.
The Court did not agree. It found that Squyres had not met his burden of showing discrimination or a genuine issue of fact relating to pretext.
What’s at Stake
Summary judgment is one of the most important phases of litigation. If the court misapplies the criteria for evaluating whether a case should go to trial, the plaintiff is unfairly deprived of the opportunity to have his case decided by a jury. Additionally, dismissal before trial undermines both the protections afforded older workers under the ADEA, but also the much more employee-friendly TCHRA. This case is a significant blow to older workers in Texas.
Squyres v. Heico Companies was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.