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Liebman v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., No. 14-13197 (11th Cir. Dec. 18, 2015)

The end of the year often brings a haul of decisions, when the courts of appeal clear their dockets for year's-end. Here's a short, to-the-point decision, reversing summary judgment on an ADEA and ERISA case where the district court judge misapprehended a controlling Supreme Court decision.

Liebman v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., No. 14-13197 (11th Cir. Dec. 18, 2015): Liebman had worked for MetLife since 1985, but first began to run into trouble in 2008, when he was serving as Managing Director of MetLife's West Palm Beach and Boca Raton offices. His boss was named Adkins. Adkins reportedly sniped at Liebman because his retirement "package was more generous than Adkins's even though Adkins held a higher position in the company."

According to the opinion, "Adkins gave Liebman poor evaluations, told him his office was 'having a bad year,' and placed him on a performance plan." Even when a reorganization placed Liebman under a new boss (Cohen), the trouble continued. An outside consultant in 2011 credited most of the accomplishments in Liebman's office to a younger employee, named Weiss.

A 2012 reorganization put Adkins in charge of Cohen. Things unravelled further:

"[D]uring 2012, Liebman began hearing complaints about his performance. In a meeting with Cohen and an other manager, Liebman was informed of reports from unnamed sources that he was 'not as available as [he] need[ed] to be . . . not working, or just not around.' Liebman's sworn declaration states that, during the second quarter of 2012, Adkins again made comments about Liebman's pension plan, this time at a meeting in front of 150 to 200 employees. In October 2012, Liebman's pay was cut by 10% a week."

At the end of January 2013, Liebman was terminated, supposedly for performance-based reasons. "At the time of Liebman's termination, he was 49 years old, Cohen was 45, Adkins was 44, and Weiss was 42."

The district court granted summary judgment on Liebman's ADEA and ERISA claims. It held that the claims failed at the prima facie stage, both because Liebman's "replacement, Weiss, was 42 years old and also a member of the protected class" - hence supposedly vitiating any age-discrimination claim - and because Liebman supposedly "failed to show he was qualified for his position."

The Eleventh Circuit reverses. In a 13-page per-curiam opinion, it quickly pinpoints the difficulty with the district court's decision: it disregards O'Connor v. Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp., 517 U.S. 308 (1996), which unequivocally held that a replacement worker may still be in the protected class as long as the employee is "substantially younger." Thus, "Weiss is seven years younger than Liebman, and this difference qualifies as substantially younger" under the O'Connor rubric.

The panel also casts doubt on the conclusion that Liebman was not qualified for the job from which he was discharged. While the record reflected complaints about the plaintiffs' performance, "Liebman had Therefore been in virtually the same position for a total of nine years before his termination. Nine years in the same position, and nearly three decades at the company, is long enough to support the inference that he was qualified for his job."

Moreover, Liebman had "received many leadership awards during his 27 years at MetLife. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, his was the top branch for MetLife's Cypress Financial Group." While his performance deficiencies might constitute a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for termination, that issue is separate from Liebman's prima facie case.

The ERISA claim is also returned to the district court, with the panel noting that the frequent, negative mentions of Liebman's favorable retirement benefits raised an inference of discrimination on the basis of participating in an employee benefit plan.

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