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MetLife exec, fired during RIF at age 64, again advances age bias claim

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

The repeated mention of the employee’s retirement timeline made in the context of discussions of whether to terminate him created a fact issue as to whether the company was engaged in succession planning, as it claimed, or unlawful discrimination.

In its renewed motion for summary judgment on the ADEA claim of a VP and acknowledged “strong performer,” MetLife again failed to convince a federal court in Massachusetts that the 64-year old executive’s retirement timeline did not play a substantial role in the decision to terminate him during a reduction in force. Not only did the company’s shifting justifications support a finding of pretext, the repeated mention of his retirement timeline created a fact dispute as to whether termination discussions reflected legitimate succession planning or impermissible age discrimination. Also rejected was MetLife’s contention the employee raised a new failure-to-hire claim that was separate from his termination claim. Given the close coordination of the decisionmakers in the RIF, the employee, said the court, was not introducing a new theory of liability but “merely augmenting the evidentiary basis for the very same age discrimination claim he had already sufficiently pled” (Fife v. MetLife Group, Inc., November 15, 2019, Saris, P.).

In 2014, the employee was named Vice President of Strategic Relationship Management (SRM) & Divisional Sales Manager (DSM). As part of his SRM role, he supervised a direct report who in turned supervised eight SRM employees. Prior to December 2015, the employee discussed his plan to retire around age 65. Sometime around January 2016, however, he told his supervisor he was enjoying work, had no interest in retirement, and wanted “to keep going.”

Spin-off. In late 2016, MetLife spun off a portion of its retail business into a new company, Brighthouse Financial, Inc., which was going to focus on offering products through sales by third parties. Prior to the spin-off, MetLife conducted a RIF and reorganization of leadership. In early 2016, the employee’s supervisor was promoted and a new supervisor took over. A few months later, that supervisor appointed a National Sales Director for Third Party Distribution (NSD) and the employee began reporting to her.

Two teams. During much of 2016, the NSD, the supervisor, and the employee’s direct report (who had assumed some of the employee’s responsibilities) began discussing how to structure the new SRM and DSM teams. While the employee was listed in one email as a good fit for the direct report’s SRM team, there was a notation that “maybe short term time horizon based on stated retirement ambitions—if so, would look to have him working closely with identified successor.” After meeting with DSMs, however, the NSD purportedly found the employee to be aggressive, forceful, and bullying. Sometime in mid-2016, she decided to exclude the employee from the DSM team.

Termination. There were also several emails from the direct report with HR and others, including the supervisor and NSD, that mentioned the employee’s retirement timeline. Although he originally included the employee on his potential SRM team, he subsequently decided against it, allegedly because he couldn’t afford his $500,000 salary. The employee was ultimately terminated in August 2016, effective as of the end of the year.

Lawsuit. The employee sued under the ADEA and state law and the court denied MetLife’s first motion for summary judgment. During discovery, the employee learned that MetLife had considered him for a newly created SRM position rather than terminating him but ultimately didn’t offer it to him. After targeted discovery regarding this position, MetLife renewed its motion for summary judgment.

Termination claim. At issue in the employee’s termination claim was whether MetLife treated age neutrally while implementing the RIF. The direct report, who testified that in 2016 he believed the employee would retire in 12 to 18 months, worked closely with the supervisor, the NSD, and HR to plan to plan and implement the RIF. Further, observed the court, there were multiple emails, texts, and handwritten notes by the direct report, the NSD, and HR during June and July 2016 linking the employee to a 12-to-18-month retirement time horizon. Taken together, this evidence was sufficient to create a fact dispute as to whether his retirement timeline played a substantial role in the termination decision.

Pretext. And while MetLife claimed the NSD did not retain the employee as a DSM because she considered him to be aggressive and contrarian and the direct report claimed the decision to exclude the employee from the SRD team was based on financial considerations, the court found evidence of pretext. The court first noted that while the supervisor and NSD could be considered actual decisionmakers, the direct report was, at the very least, in a position to influence them. Further, while MetLife argued there was no evidence linking the employee’s purported 12-to-18-month timeline to the NSD’s decision regarding the DSM position, and that she claimed she understood the timeline to refer to a possible consultant position with Brighthouse, credibility determinations concerning pretext, motive, and intent are properly left for trial, said the court.

Shifting explanations. There was also evidence the company’s stated reasons for terminating the employee shifted over time. Although the employee was originally told his position had been eliminated, in response to his EEOC charge, MetLife claimed it had to choose between him and another individual for a single DSM position. The supervisor, however, testified that he did not recall that being the situation. Then, in response to another employee’s administrative charge, the company claimed it retained the DSMs with the most sales experience. But the supervisor again undermined this explanation when he testified that he didn’t believe that to be true. In addition, the NSD contended that the employee was terminated because he was aggressive and contrarian while the direct report claimed he did not include him on the SRM team because of his salary. A jury might reasonably conclude, said the court, that these shifting justifications indicated the company’s stated reasons were pretextual.

Retirement comments. As to MetLife’s contention it was engaged in legitimate succession planning, the court pointed out that during the RIF, the company never asked the employee about his retirement plans or offered him early retirement. Further, both the direct report and HR made repeated mention of his retirement timeline in mid-2016 in the context of discussing whether to terminate the employee. In addition, the NSD memorialized at least one of those discussions in writing, observed the court, finding a fact dispute as to whether the discussions reflected legitimate succession planning or impermissible age discrimination.

Separate consideration of SRM and DSM positions. Finally, the court rejected MetLife’s argument that the employee’s new failure-to-hire claim for the SRM position was separate from his termination claim, was not raised in his administrative charge or civil complaint, and failed on the merits. The recent round of discovery, said the court, supported considering the employee’s termination as a result of a single process that included both the NSD’s and direct report’s decisions, rather than of two separate processes. Both worked closely with the supervisor during the RIF and both were part of the “core group” convened by the supervisor to determine the future of the third-party life insurance team. Accordingly, said the court, the employee did not raise a new claim.