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Peterson v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 4, 2015

DAVID O. PETERSON, Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
BELL HELICOPTER TEXTRON, INCORPORATED, Defendant - Appellant

Page 385

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

For DAVID O. PETERSON, Plaintiff - Appellee: Hal K. Gillespie, Gillespie Sanford, L.L.P., Dallas, TX.

For BELL HELICOPTER TEXTRON, INCORPORATED, Defendant - Appellant: Cynthia L. Hill, Shannon, Gracey, Ratliff & Miller, L.L.P., Fort Worth, TX.

Before JONES and HAYNES, Circuit Judges, and CRONE[*], District Judge.

OPINION

Page 386

EDITH H. JONES, Circuit Judge

After losing his job during a reduction-in-force, David Peterson sued his erstwhile employer Bell Helicopter Textron for age discrimination. A jury found that the company harbored some discriminatory motive, but that Peterson would have been fired anyway. After rendering a take-nothing money judgment on the verdict, the district court, acting on Peterson's post-trial motion, enjoined Bell Helicopter from discriminating on the basis of age anywhere, anytime, " especially during reductions in force," and awarded Peterson attorneys' fees. We reverse.

I.[1]

David Peterson was a regional sales manager for Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc. (" Bell" ), from 1989 through 2008, when he was one of many employees terminated under a reduction-in-force (" RIF" ) that Bell undertook after it lost an important contract with the Department of the Army. The Army notified Bell of this bad news on October 16, 2008, and Bell executives met within days to chart the company's course. On advice of the Human Resources (" HR" ) and Finance departments, the company decided to set a fixed percentage of employees for layoff in the RIF by applying pre-defined selection criteria, which included annual performance review scores, rankings for the employee's impact on the organization, and any negative performance documentation in the employee's file. The RIF required eliminating approximately 500 employees, including 19 in Marketing and Sales, Peterson's division. According to Bell, among Regional Sales Managers in the North American Sales unit, Peterson had the lowest performance scores for 2006 and 2007. On October 31, 2008, the company formally notified Peterson that his last day would be January 1, 2009.

Peterson disputes that the decision was adopted so straightforwardly. He especially makes much of the corporate blame-shifting and the resulting difficulty he had in determining who made the decision to lay him off. Peterson's version runs something like this. On October 23, the Executive Director of North American Sales called him and said, " Dave, I don't know what they're doing. You're my best guy, but you're on the list to be laid off." This supervisor also allegedly told Peterson that " it's not related to performance at all." At a formal meeting, with a Human Resources representative also present, that same supervisor disclaimed being " privy to how these decisions were made." The HR representative said that she did not know how the decision was made but " it was decided at the top." Peterson specifically elicited assurances that his performance was not one of the reasons.

Peterson contended that, once the lawsuit was underway, " Bell came up with a reason that sounded like performance." During discovery, the company averred that Peterson's termination was based solely on his declining performance, which Peterson argues must be pretextual because his performance ratings, whatever their absolute numbers, were not in decline. Then, in support of its motion for summary judgment, Bell cited the fact that Peterson " had the lowest performance scores for 2006 and 2007." Peterson further alleges that his performance was objectively excellent, quantitative metrics notwithstanding: " [Performance] evaluations are one thing and performance as a

Page 387

helicopter sales person is another." Bell not unreasonably, however, decided to use the former as one metric of the latter.

Peterson sued Bell under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1), and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (" TCHRA" ), Tex. Lab. Code § 21.051(1), as well as on common law contract claims arising from disputed commissions. The district court dismissed the federal age discrimination claim, holding that Peterson failed to create a fact issue to rebut Bell's nondiscriminatory reason for termination. S ee Crawford v. Formosa Plastics Corp., La., 234 F.3d 899, 903 (5th Cir. 2000) (evidence must be capable of supporting a " reasonable inference of discrimination" ). After the parties resolved the disputes over unpaid commissions, the district court dismissed those as well. Peterson has not noticed an appeal on these or any other issues.

The district court, however, found Peterson's age discrimination claim withstood summary judgment under the TCHRA, which requires evidence only that age was a " motivating factor" for termination.[2] The case went to ...


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