Think Before You Demote, Promote, Hire, or Fire: Atlanta’s Fire and Rescue Department in the Hot Seat for Age Discrimination
ANTHONY DAVIDSON v. CITY OF ATLANTA, GEORGIA
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia; Atlanta Division
Civil Action No. 1:11-cv-2880-JEC
On January 29, 2013, the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in the 11th Circuit denied the City of Atlanta’s bid for summary judgment in a heated age discrimination case involving the internal hierarchy of the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department (the “AFRD”). In the matter of Anthony Davidson versus the City of Atlanta, Mr. Davidson brings claims of age discrimination, alleging that he was wrongfully demoted on the basis of his age.
The Honorable Julie E. Carnes delivered her well-reasoned opinion clearly outlining why, in her view, the AFRD’s argument that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Mr. Davidson’s demotion was all flame and smoke.
What Happened in the Case:
Mr. Davidson was first hired as a firefighter with the AFRD in 1984. In her opinion, Judge Carnes notes that Mr. Davidson “consistently received good reviews and steadily progressed through the ranks of the department” throughout his employment with the AFRD. True to this trend, in 2007, Mr. Davidson was promoted to a Deputy Chief position with the AFRD and continued to receive positive evaluations on his job performance in that role.
In 2009, Mr. Joel Baker, then a Section Chief, was selected through an interview process to be the Interim Fire Chief. Upon assuming this role, Mr. Baker began making changes, and most notably, soon decided to “reorganize” the Executive Staff of the AFRD. As part of this “reorganization,” which became effective on May 13, 2010, Mr. Baker demoted three out of the four standing members of the AFRD’s Executive Staff.
This included demoting Mr. Davidson from his Deputy Chief position, alongside the demotions of another Deputy Chief and the acting Assistant Chief. All of the demoted Chiefs were replaced by significantly younger individuals. Mr. Davidson, who was 52 years old at the time of his demotion, was replaced by then 42-year-old Mr. Christopher Wessels.
Mr. Baker did not demote the fourth Executive Staff member, Mr. Brenda Willis, because she was being considered for the permanent role of the Fire Chief at the time. However, although Mr. Baker did not remove Ms. Willis from her position at the time, he also made abundantly clear to Ms. Willis that if he were the one selected for the role of the permanent Fire Chief that she could soon expect to be demoted from her position on the Executive Staff as well. There is also evidence to suggest that had he been able to proceed with demoting Ms. Willis, that he planned to replace her with an individual who was ten years her junior.
Following these demotions, Mr. Baker gave Mr. Davidson a performance evaluation stating that his performance “need[ed] improvement,” claiming that Mr. Davidson had not met his professional development requirements. In its Order, however, the Court notes that Mr. Baker failed to articulate any specific professional development goals, and notes moreover that Mr. Davidson had met all of the existing requirements already in place for his job. It is also important to note that this negative evaluation was eventually overturned and revised by an evaluation review committee.
In November 2010, Mr. Davidson filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”), claiming that Mr. Baker demoting Mr. Davidson from his Deputy Chief position was an act of discrimination based on Mr. Davidson’s age. Following the EEOC’s investigation of his Charge, Mr. Davidson subsequently filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, claiming age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the “ADEA”).
Issues Raised at Summary Judgment:
In this case, the City of Atlanta did not dispute that Mr. Davidson demonstrated all the elements of a prima facie case of age discrimination. That is, there was no dispute that Mr. Davidson effectively demonstrated that: (1) he was over the age of 40 at the time of his demotion; (2) he was qualified for the position in question; (3) his demotion constituted an adverse employment decision; and, (4) that he was replaced by a significantly younger person so as to create an inference of age discrimination.
Surviving the first tier of the McDonnell Douglas framework, the Court moved on to examine the second tier requirements, wherein the City of Atlanta is responsible for generating a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for Mr. Davidson’s demotion. Interestingly, before turning to the reasons provided by the City of Atlanta, Judge Carnes notes the “exceedingly light” nature of the defendant’s burden in this regard. Indeed, the Court distinguishes that “an employer’s burden to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for an adverse personnel decision is not onerous.”[i]
The Court goes on to note that the employer’s burden is simply one of “production, not persuasion,” meaning the City of Atlanta did not have to persuade the Court that was actually motivated by the proffered reason, it merely must come up with a reason to give.[ii] Having laid this groundwork, the Court turns to more closely examine the reasons put forth by the City of Atlanta as its “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for demoting Mr. Davidson. In this regard, the Court ultimately provides that the City of Atlanta met its burden, “albeit not very convincingly.”
In this vein, the City of Atlanta relied primarily on a city ordinance endowing the Fire Chief with broad discretion to appoint members of the Executive Staff, including Deputy Chiefs. The City of Atlanta further argued that, according to Mr. Baker’s deposition testimony, he wanted to implement a greater focus on professional development and education in the Executive Staff. Mr. Baker’s deposition testimony also goes on to say that Mr. Wessels was more qualified than Mr. Davidson because he had attended the National Fire Academy and obtained a college degree.
However, the Court keenly notes that the fact that Mr. Baker had discretion to select members of the Executive Staff “provides no insight into whether his selections were impermissibly age-based.” Perhaps equally as important, the Court makes a point of noting that Mr. Baker’s deposition testimony on these issues is questionable. It is also worth noting that Mr. Baker admitted during his deposition that it was not standard practice for a new Fire Chief to remove and replace the members of the Executive Staff upon assuming office.
Furthermore, Mr. Baker also admitted that he did not articulate any goals or requirements for education and professional development work when he assumed the Interim Fire Chief position. Neither did Mr. Baker indicate that at the time of his decision to demote Mr. Davidson, that Mr. Davidson’s demotion was related to his education level or any failure on his part to comply with professional development requirements. Instead, Mr. Baker only offered the vague explanation that he “wanted to move in a different direction” with the AFRD.
It is perhaps the combination of all of these factors that enabled the Court to quickly make its decision to deny the defendant’s motion for summary judgment upon arriving at the third tier of the McDonnell Douglas framework evaluation. In this tier, Mr. Davidson needed to demonstrate that the City of Atlanta’s reason for his demotion was pretextual, which he could do either: (1) directly by persuading the Court that a discriminatory reason more likely motivated the employer; or, (2) indirectly by showing that the employer’s proffered explanation is unworthy of credence. [iii]
Given the Court’s analysis of the preceding two tiers, and combined with evidence which suggested that, for example, during staff meetings Mr. Baker would refer to Chief Michael Williams, then 59 years old, as “ancient” and the “‘oldest thing’ in the room,” it seems the Court had heard enough. The Court determined that Mr. Davidson could satisfy the third tier using both types of available evidence noted above to demonstrate the pretextual nature of the defendant’s proffered reasons.
Having traveled through the three tiers of the McDonnell Douglas framework, the Court was satisfied that triable issues of fact on Mr. Davidson’s age discrimination claims had been sufficiently raised. Thus, the Court determined that a denial of the City of Atlanta’s bid for summary judgment was warranted, and, in so doing, cleared Mr. Davidson to move forward towards a trial of his claims.
[i] Citing Hall v. Alabama Association of School Boards, 326 F.3d 1157, 1166 (11th Cir. 2003)
[iii] Citing Kragor v. Takeda Pharm. Am., Inc., 2012 WL 6618360, at *2 (11th Cir. Dec. 20, 2012)(quoting Texas Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 256(1981)).