A 63-year-old employee, who had worked in an administrative capacity for her employer for 12 years, was told that her position had been eliminated due to a customer-commissioned audit of the company’s services and recommended that ABM streamline its staff. She sued and claimed, among other things, that her employer was obliged to find her a different position with the company. Affirming summary judgment for the employer, the Eighth Circuit held that no such duty existed under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Haggenmiller v. ABM Parking Services, Inc., No. 15-3107 (September 14, 2016).
Sharilyn Haggenmiller was assigned to work at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as an “Administrative Assistant/Auditor” and to perform a variety of administrative tasks. Her employer, ABM Parking Services, provided parking services under contract to the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). Over time, some of Haggenmiller’s duties were eliminated due to automation. There was no evidence, however, that she did not perform the duties assigned to her, and her performance evaluations were satisfactory or better throughout her employment.
In 2012, in the context of renewing its agreement with ABM, the MAC engaged an independent auditing and consulting firm to perform an audit of the MAC’s “landside operations,” which included parking facilities at the airport. The consultant, among other things, recommended that two administrative positions that had long existed be eliminated. Based on these recommendations, ABM was directed to eliminate those positions. One of the positions to be eliminated was held by Haggenmiller, and the other was held by a 64-year-old employee.
ABM complied with the MAC’s directives and eliminated both positions. The employees’ manager attempted to find the two employees other positions within ABM, but no suitable positions were available. Both employees sued ABM in separate suits; the other employee’s suit survived summary judgment and is pending. Haggenmiller’s suit, however, was dismissed when the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota granted summary judgment to ABM.
The District Court’s Decision
The district court found that, assuming Haggenmiller had established a prima facie case, ABM had articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her discharge, which the court found was not pretextual. Indeed, Haggenmiller did not seriously challenge the veracity of her employer’s reason for eliminating her position. Rather, one key point of her argument was that while ABM could eliminate her position, it was not free to eliminate her. Haggenmiller asserted that one of the rationales ABM used to justify her discharge was that there were no other open positions. She claimed, therefore, that ABM’s stated reason was pretextual.
The Eighth Circuit’s Determination
Writing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Chief Judge William Jay Riley rejected this interpretation of the employer’s actions. Since ABM’s reason for dismissing Haggenmiller was unquestionably related to the MAC’s audit and directive to eliminate two administrative positions, the employer’s stated reason for her discharge—that “incidentally, there were no positions for her to work in ABM’s [Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport] office at the time her position was eliminated”—did not establish pretext.
In fact, Haggenmiller’s supervisor had inquired within the company about other positions for her, but he found nothing suitable. The court of appeals stated that the supervisor “was under no obligation to find alternative employment for Haggenmiller.” To Hagenmiller’s point that the supervisor stopped looking for a different position for her when she retained legal counsel, the court of appeals said that this type of “seemingly defensive reaction” to allegations of discrimination, without more, did not established an inference of discrimination sufficient to survive summary judgment.
The Eighth Circuit concluded that even if Haggenmiller’s argument that a reasonable jury could disbelieve the employer’s stated reason were true, in order to defeat summary judgment, “Haggenmiller ‘must present affirmative evidence,’ not simply contend that a jury might disbelieve [ABM’s] evidence.” Citing the Supreme Court of the United States’s decision in Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., the court of appeals concluded that, at most, Haggenmiller had created “only a weak issue of fact as to whether the employer’s reason was untrue” and that this was insufficient as a matter of law to defeat summary judgment.
This case, although decided under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, is an important ruling for cases arising under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act because the model of proof under both statutes is the same. Here, an employer went out of its way to identify a suitable, alternative position within the company for an older worker whose job had been eliminated. The court’s decision recognizes that the employer was under no obligation to do so.