By Ashley Escoe Sims

In Arthur v. Pet Dairy, an unpublished civil opinion released on February 9, 2015, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s order of summary judgment for the appellee, Pet Dairy, because the appellant, Ralph Arthur, failed to prove his employment was terminated because of his age.

Arthur Claims He was Terminated Due to His Age

Arthur was a milk delivery driver and salesman for Pet Dairy from January 2003 through December 2009, when he was terminated. He claimed that his supervisor, Mike Reynolds, fired him due to his age, which violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). Arthur testified before the district court that Reynolds told him on more than one occasion that Arthur was too old to do his job. However, Pet Dairy alleged Arthur was fired due to his continued poor work performance, including traffic accidents and customer complaints. Reynolds, as well as Pet Dairy’s assistant manager confronted Arthur about his poor performance on several occasions and warned Arthur that he would be fired if he did not improve.

This district court granted summary judgment for Pet Dairy. It held that Arthur’s evidence did raise a genuine dispute as to whether he could establish a prima facie case of age discrimination nor prove his age was the but-for cause of his termination by direct or circumstantial evidence.

Establishing Age Discrimination

Under ADEA, it is “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). To prove age discrimination a plaintiff must prove that his age was the but-for cause of his termination. A plaintiff may accomplish this in one of two ways: by proving a “prima facie case,” which establishes a rebuttable presumption of discrimination, or by offering direct or circumstantial evidence of discrimination.

In Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt., Inc., the Fourth Circuit laid out the four elements required to establish a prima facie case. The plaintiff must show (1) he was a member of the protected class, here, 40 years old or older; (2) he was performing his job duties to his employer’s legitimate expectations at the time of termination; (3) he was terminated; and (4) he was replaced by a younger person.

According to the Supreme Court opinion Gross v. FBL Financial Services, for a plaintiff to meet the burden of establishing a but-for cause by direct or circumstantial evidence, he must also present evidence that the employer did not have other legitimate motivations that were the reasons for the adverse employment action.

Arthur Was Not Able to Meet His Burden of Proof

Arthur was not able to establish a prima facie case because he was not able to prove the second element–that he satisfied his employer’s legitimate expectations at the time of his termination. Pet Dairy provided ample evidence that Arthur consistently failed to sufficiently perform his job duties. Most notably were the numerous customer complaints and that Pet Dairy’s largest customer refused delivery from Arthur because of his poor performance.

Additionally, while Arthur’s testimony of Reynolds’ comments concerning his age were evidence that age may have been a motivating factor for his termination, Arthur was not able to show it was the but-for cause. Pet Dairy had other, lawful reasons to terminate him. One reason was his poor job performance. Another reason was the business decision to increase the sales of other sales routes by eliminating Arthur’s route. Arthur acknowledged that he was reprimanded on numerous occasions because of his poor performance; he also admitted that Pet Dairy’s decision to eliminate his sales route was one reason he was fired.

District Court’s Ruling Affirmed

Because Arthur did not offer sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that he met his employers legitimate expectations nor did he offer sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that there was no other explainable basis for his termination other than age, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order of summary judgment for Pet Dairy.