Tuesday, April 8, 2014

11th Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment, Holds District Court Applied Incorrect Standards on Plaintiff's ADA and ADEA Claims

In a decision overturning a district court's grant of summary judgment of plaintiff Anthony Mazzeo's age discrimination and disability discrimination claims, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the plaintiff presented enough evidence to make out prima facie cases under the ADEA, ADAAA and the state-equivalent claims as the lower district court applied incorrect standards in each claim in dismissing the claims.

Mazzeo worked for defendant Color Resolution Int'l, LLC ("CRI") providing technical and sales service to its customers in Florida and southern Georgia.  In 2007, Mazzeo was diagnosed with a herniated disc and torn ligaments in his back.  The herniated disc caused Mazzeo pain along his lower back, which spread down his right leg and intermittently affected his ability to walk, sit, stand, bend, run, and lift objects weighing more than 10lbs.  Mazzeo discussed his condition with CRI in 2008 and then in early 2009, Mazzeo discussed his potentially needing back surgery which would require him to miss 2 weeks of work and have 3-to-6 months of restricted activity.  Mazzeo's supervisor, a Mr. Boyd, allegedly remarked that such a procedure would "likely require a longer recovery period of six to eight weeks." 

On February 25, 2009, Mazzeo informed Mr. Boyd that his back surgery had been scheduled for the second week of March.  The very next day, Mr. Boyd initiated Mazzeo's termination paperwork.  CRI cited declining sales revenue, over a period of years, as the reason for Mazzeo's termination.  Mazzeo was 46-years-old at the time of his termination.  A mere ten days after Mazzeo's termination, CRI offered a similar sales position to a 23-year-old recent college graduate, who began working for CRI on March 23, 2009.

In beginning their discussion on why they were reversing the lower court's grant of summary judgment, the 11th Circuit discussed the enactment of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (the "ADAAA") because Mazzeo's back problems, scheduled surgery and termination all occurred after when the ADAAA went into effect.  In granting summary judgment, the district court judge found that Mazzeo's physician's affidavit about Mazzeo's impairment was "insufficient, conclusory, and did not demonstrate that Mr. Mazzeo was disabled because it 'contain[ed] no detailed discussion as to whether [the] back condition affected any of [Mr. Mazzeo's] life activities."  The district court also cited a pre-ADAAA 11th Circuit opinion for the proposition that there could be "no disability based on physician's lifting restrictions where the plaintiff testified she could still work."  The district court also noted that the post-surgery work restrictions Mazzeo discussed with Mr. Boyd were no more than a "transitory impairment and, therefore, insufficient to establish that CRI regarded Mazzeo as disabled."  The 11th Circuit covered the ADAAA, the EEOC's guidance and concluded that Mazzeo's physician's affidavit more than showed that Mazzeo was able to make out a prima facie case on his ADA and state-equivalent claims.

In addressing Mazzeo's ADEA claim, the court noted that Mazzeo argued for the "standard version" of the ADEA prima facie case whereas CRI argued for the reduction-in-force ("RIF") standard.  The 11th Circuit stated that which version is adopted depends on Mazzeo's ability to present sufficient evidence that he was replaced by a younger individual.  The district court held that the new 23-year-old CRI employed did not replace Mazzeo and that Mazzeo was not replaced by anyone.  However, the Court held that a plaintiff may demonstrate that he was replaced by showing that, after his termination, some of his former responsibilities were delegated to another employee, in addition to that other employee's own responsibilities.  The Court then held that the district court erred in applying the RIF prima facie case standard as the evidence, viewed in light most favorable to Mazzeo, showed that his position was not eliminated and that he was replaced by the 23-year-old.  On remand, the 11th circuit directed the lower court to use the standard version of the ADEA prima facie case in evaluating CRI's motion for summary judgment.

The case is Anthony Mazzeo vs. Color Resolutions Int'l, LLC, Case No. 12-10250 (11th Cir., March 31, 2014)

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