In the case of Rizzo v. PPL Service Corp., the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has awarded summary judgment in favor of the employer in an age discrimination lawsuit filed by former employees who were fired after sending and receiving personal e-mail at work.
PPL Service Corporation had a zero-tolerance policy against employees using their e-mail accounts to send and receive non-work related messages. After an internal investigation revealed they were in violation of this strict policy, plaintiffs were fired. Believing that the alleged violation of the e-mail policy was merely a pretext for illegal age discrimination, the plaintiffs filed suit against PPL under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.
PPL moved for summary judgment, and the court granted the motion. Because there was no direct evidence of age discrimination, the court applied the burden shifting analysis set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817 (1973). Under this analysis, a terminated employee has the initial burden of presenting a prima facie case of discrimination. The burden then shifts to the employer to show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the alleged adverse employment action at issue. If the employer makes this showing, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show the stated reasons are pretextual.
In this case, the court found that the plaintiffs presented a prima facie case of age-based discrimination. The record revealed that there was a disproportionate number of employees in the protected group (above 40 years old) who were investigated for improper e-mail use. Furthermore, the only people terminated as a result of the investigation were above 40.
There was no dispute, however, that the employer had presented a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs admitted they were aware of the company’s e-mail usage policy, and admitted they had sent and received prohibited messages.
Notwithstanding the legitimacy of the employer’s reason for termination, the plaintiffs argued that the offered reason was merely a pretext. The court found otherwise, and noted that the plaintiffs presented no evidence that age played any role whatsoever in the decision to terminate them.
Rizzo v. PPL Service Corp., 2005 WL 913091 (E.D.Pa., April 19, 2005).