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First Circuit reverses trial court’s decision to dismiss age discrimination case against Novartis

Yesterday, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s decision to dismiss an age discrimination case against Novartis Ex-Lax, Inc. (“Novartis“). The case arose in Puerto Rico when Novartis fired the plaintiff, Hernan Acevedo-Parrilla (“Acevedo”). The trial court in Puerto Rico dismissed the case based on a procedure called summary judgment. When a court dismisses a case at summary judgment, it must determine that no reasonable jury could possibly find in the plaintiff’s favor even if it viewed the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. The First Circuit held that the trial court misapplied the summary judgment standard.

Acevedo worked for Novartis as a Maintenance and Engineering Manager for 11 years before his supervisor, Carlos Ceinos, fired him on February 23, 2007. At the time of his termination, Acevedo was 57 years old. On at least two occasions, within 6 months of the date of his termination, Acevedo heard Ceinos say that “the main problem” at the plant where they worked was that “the persons who had been in the company for a long time were not performing.” Acevedo understood this to mean that Ceinos thought the older employees at the plant were a problem. Indeed, after Ceinos began working at the plant in 2003, the plant hired 140 employees, 114 of whom were under 40 years old. It also fired 17 employees, 15 of whom were older than 40.

In addition to this evidence of age discrimination, the First Circuit held that a jury could reasonably infer that Ceinos discriminated against Acevedo because of his age since it could disbelieve Ceinos’ purported reasons for the decision. A jury could disbelieve him because, in essence, Ceinos blamed Acevedo for several problems that were not Acevedo’s fault. Acevedo also presented evidence that Ceinos did not comply with Novartis’ policies because he did not consult with human resources (HR) before he fired Acevedo. Furthermore, Acevedo presented evidence that Ceinos was far more lenient with his much younger replacement when the replacement made errors similar to the errors that Acevedo supposedly had committed.