OpenJurist

517 US 308 O'Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp

517 U.S. 308
116 S.Ct. 1307
134 L.Ed.2d 433

O'CONNOR
v.
CONSOLIDATED COIN CATERERS CORP. Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

No. 95-354.

Syllabus*

Argued February 27, 1996

Decided April 1, 1996

At age 56, petitioner was fired by respondent corporation and replacedby a 40-year-old worker.He then filed this suit, alleging that hisdischarge violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA).The District Court granted respondent's summary judgmentmotion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that petitionerfailed to make out a prima facie case of age discrimination under McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U. S. 792, because he failed toshow that he was replaced by someone outside the age group protected bythe ADEA.

Held: Assuming that Title VII's McDonnell Douglas framework isapplicable to ADEA cases, there must be at least a logical connectionbetween each element of the prima facie case and the illegaldiscrimination.Replacement by someone under 40 fails this requirement.Although the ADEA limits its protection to those who are 40 or older,it prohibits discrimination against those protected employees on thebasis of age, not class membership.That one member of the protectedclass lost out to another member is irrelevant, so long as he lost outbecause of his age.The latter is more reliably indicated by the factthat his replacement was substantially younger than by the fact that hisreplacement was not a member of the protected class.56 F. 3d 542,reversed and remanded.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

1

This case presents the question whether a plaintiff allegingthat he was discharged in violation of the Age Discrimination inEmployment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 81 Stat. 602, as amended, 29 U. S. C.Section(s) 621 et seq., must show that he was replaced by someoneoutside the age group protected by the ADEA to make out a prima faciecase under the framework established by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v.Green, 411 U. S. 792 (1973).

2

Petitioner James O'Connor was employed by respondentConsolidated Coin Caterers Corporation from 1978 until August 10, 1990,when, at age 56, he was fired.Claiming that he had been dismissedbecause of his age in violation of the ADEA, petitioner brought suit inthe United States District Court for the Western District of NorthCarolina.After discovery, the District Court granted respondent'smotion for summary judgment, 829 F. Supp. 155 (1993), and petitionerappealed.The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit stated thatpetitioner could establish a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglasonly if he could prove that (1) he was in the age group protected by theADEA; (2) he was discharged or demoted; (3) at the time of his dischargeor demotion, he was performing his job at a level that met hisemployer's legitimate expectations; and (4) following his discharge ordemotion, he was replaced by someone of comparable qualificationsoutside the protected class.Since petitioner's replacement was 40years old, the Court of Appeals concluded that the last element of theprima facie case had not been made out.156 F. 3d 542, 546 (1995).Finding that petitioner's claim could not survive a motion for summaryjudgment without benefit of the McDonnell Douglas presumption (i.e.,"under the ordinary standards of proof used in civil cases," 56 F. 3d,at 548), the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of dismissal.Wegranted O'Connor's petition for certiorari.516 U. S. ___ (1995).

3

In McDonnell Douglas, we "established an allocation of theburden of production and an order for the presentation of proof in TitleVII discriminatory-treatment cases."St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks,509 U. S. 502, 506 (1993).We held that a plaintiff alleging racialdiscrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of1964, 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e et seq., could establish a primafacie case by showing "(i) that he belongs to a racial minority; (ii)that he applied and was qualified for a job for which the employer wasseeking applicants; (iii) that, despite his qualifications, he wasrejected; and (iv) that, after his rejection, the position remained openand the employer continued to seek applicants from persons of [the]complainant's qualifications."McDonnell Douglas, 411 U. S., at 802.Once the plaintiff has met this initial burden, the burden of productionshifts to the employer "to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatoryreason for the employee's rejection." Ibid. If the trier of fact findsthat the elements of the prima facie case are supported by apreponderance of the evidence and the employer remains silent, the courtmust enter judgment for the plaintiff. St. Mary's Honor Center, supra,at 509-510, and n. 3; Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450U. S. 248, 254 (1981).

4

In assessing claims of age discrimination brought under theADEA, the Fourth Circuit, like others,2 has applied some variant ofthe basic evidentiary framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas.We havenever had occasion to decide whether that application of the Title VIIrule to the ADEA context is correct, but since the parties do notcontest that point, we shall assume it.Cf. St. Mary's Honor Center,supra, at 506 n. 1 (assuming that "the McDonnell Douglas framework isfully applicable to racial-discrimination-in-employment claims under 42U. S. C. Section(s) 1983"). On that assumption, the question presentedfor our determination is what elements must be shown in an ADEA case toestablish the prima facie case that triggers the employer's burden ofproduction.

5

As the very name "prima facie case" suggests, there must be atleast a logical connection between each element of the prima facie caseand the illegal discrimination for which it establishes a "legallymandatory, rebuttable presumption," Burdine, supra, at 254, n. 7.Theelement of replacement by someone under 40 fails this requirement.Thediscrimination prohibited by the ADEA is discrimination "because of [an]individual's age," 29 U. S. C. Section(s) 623(a)(1), though theprohibition is "limited to individuals who are at least 40 years ofage," Section(s) 631(a). This language does not ban discriminationagainst employees because they are aged 40 or older; it bansdiscrimination against employees because of their age, but limits theprotected class to those who are 40 or older.The fact that one personin the protected class has lost out to another person in the protectedclass is thus irrelevant, so long as he has lost out because of his age.Or to put the point more concretely, there can be no greater inferenceof age discrimination (as opposed to "40 or over" discrimination) when a40 year-old is replaced by a 39 year-old than when a 56 year-old isreplaced by a 40 year-old.Because it lacks probative value, the factthat an ADEA plaintiff was replaced by someone outside the protectedclass is not a proper element of the McDonnell Douglas prima facie case.

6

Perhaps some courts have been induced to adopt the principleurged by respondent in order to avoid creating a prima facie case on thebasis of very thin evidence-for example, the replacement of a 68year-old by a 65 year-old.While the respondent's principletheoretically permits such thin evidence (consider the example above ofa 40 year-old replaced by a 39 year-old), as a practical matter it willrarely do so, since the vast majority of age-discrimination claims comefrom older employees.In our view, however, the proper solution to theproblem lies not in making an utterly irrelevant factor an element ofthe prima facie case, but rather in recognizing that the prima faciecase requires "evidence adequate to create an inference that anemployment decision was based on a[n] [illegal] discriminatory criterion. . . ."Teamsters v. United States, 431 U. S. 324, 358 (1977)(emphasis added).In the age-discrimination context, such an inferencecan not be drawn from the replacement of one worker with another workerinsignificantly younger.Because the ADEA prohibits discrimination onthe basis of age and not class membership, the fact that a replacementis substantially younger than the plaintiff is a far more reliableindicator of age discrimination than is the fact that the plaintiff wasreplaced by someone outside the protected class. The judgment of theFourth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedingsconsistent with this opinion.

7

It is so ordered.

*

The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Courtbut has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenienceof the reader.See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321,337.

1

The court also concluded that even under a modifiedversion of the McDonnell Douglas prima facie standard which the FourthCircuit applies to reduction-in-force cases, see Mitchell v. DataGeneral Corp., 12 F. 3d 1310, 1315 (1993), petitioner could not prevail.We limit our review to the Fourth Circuit's treatment of this case as anon-reduction-in-force case.

2

See, e.g., Roper v. Peabody Coal Co., 47 F. 3d 925, 926-927 (CA7 1995); Rinehart v. Independence, 35 F. 3d 1263, 1265 (CA8 1994),cert. denied, 514 U. S. ___ (1995); Seman v. Coplay Cement Co., 26 F. 3d428, 432, n. 7 (CA3 1994); Roush v. KFC Nat. Mgt. Co., 10 F. 3d 392, 396 (CA6 1993), cert. denied, 513 U. S. ___ (1994); Lindsey v. Prive Corp.,987 F. 2d 324, 326, n. 5 (CA5 1993); Goldstein v. Manhattan Industries,Inc., 758 F. 2d 1435, 1442 (CA11), cert. denied, 474 U. S. 1005 (1985);Haskell v. Kaman Corp., 743 F. 2d 113, 119, and n. 1 (CA2 1984); Cuddyv. Carmen, 694 F. 2d 853, 856-857 (CADC 1982); Douglas v. Anderson, 656F. 2d 528, 531-532 (CA9 1981); Loeb v. Textron, Inc., 600 F. 2d 1003,1014-1016 (CA1 1979); Schwager v. Sun Oil Co. of Pa., 591 F. 2d 58,60-61 (CA10 1979).