Pattison v. W.W. Grainger, Inc. [pdf], decided last week by the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals, illustrates the need to analyze, confirm, and verify data before using the information as a justification for a termination decision.
Grainger terminated Wally Pattison (age 51) for allegedly failing to meet sales goals. At the time of his termination, Pattison held the position of Territory Manager, servicing accounts in the Greater Cleveland area. Pattison claimed that shortly after Sam DiMeo became his immediate supervisor, he took numerous adverse employment actions against him, including performance warnings for not meeting sales goals when younger employees who also were not meeting sales goals did not receive performance warnings. Pattison also claimed that DiMeo terminated him despite a significant rise in his performance numbers shortly before his termination, and despite the retention of younger employees with worse performance numbers.
The trial court dismissed Pattison’s age discrimination claim on summary judgment, finding that Grainger terminated Pattison solely for failing to meet legitimate business goals for five consecutive years. The court of appeals, however, in reviewing Pattison’s sales numbers in comparison to the 12 other Territory Managers who worked in the Cleveland district under DiMeo’s supervision, found that one could reasonably conclude that age motivated Grainger’s decision.
According to DiMeo, the Cleveland district routinely failed to meet sales goals, being below goal for the three years prior to Pattison’s termination, and five out of the previous seven years.
Despite the subpar performance of the entire Cleveland district, Pattison’s sales numbers consistently ranked in the mid-range of the 13 Territory Managers.
At least five substantially younger Territory Managers had sales numbers worse than Pattison’s, yet were not terminated.
One Territory Manager, 20 years Pattison’s junior, was below goal for half the time, but was never even threatened or reprimanded.
Another Territory Manager, six years younger than Pattison, was promoted even though he had sales numbers four points lower than Pattison.
Grainger lacked of any written (or even verbal) policies, procedures, or practices covering the number of years a Territory Manager could fail to meet sales goals before being terminated.
Based on this evidence, the court concluded: “Grainger claimed that it fired Pattison because of his poor performance; however, Grainger’s dissimilar treatment of significantly younger employees, whose performance figures were lower than Pattison’s, belies its assertion.”
Data can be very persuasive. The employer in this case, however, is now facing a jury trial because its explanation for the termination conflicted with the underlying numbers. You can almost guarantee that the employee’s attorney, a state or federal EEO investigator, a judge, and a jury will all spend time pulling apart your numbers to see if they jive with your legitimate non-discriminatory reason. Do yourself a favor and double-check for yourself anytime you plan to use the information in a termination decision.