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Kaplan v. City of Sugar Land

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

April 6, 2017

LEON KAPLAN, Appellant
v.
THE CITY OF SUGAR LAND, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 240th District Court Fort Bend County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 12-DCV-200051

          Panel consists of Justices Busby, Donovan, and Wise.

          OPINION

          J. Brett Busby Justice.

         Appellant Leon Kaplan sued appellee, the City of Sugar Land, Texas, for age discrimination under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 21.051 (West 2015). The City moved for summary judgment on traditional and no-evidence grounds. The trial court granted the motion without specifying the grounds. In a single issue, Kaplan argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. We affirm.

         Background

         Kaplan began working for the City in 2005 and served as the administrative manager of the City's Parks and Recreation Department. His responsibilities included: managing the administrative function of the department; supervising the front office operations and secretarial staff; preparing, monitoring, and managing the department's budget; and developing and managing certain special projects and programs of the department. These special projects and programs included the department's cultural arts program and the Sugar Land Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established to support the City's parks and civic facilities. For the cultural arts program, Kaplan was responsible for managing payments for artwork purchased by the City and for maintaining records and handling deposits and refunds relating to public use of city property. As the City's liaison for the Sugar Land Legacy Foundation, Kaplan was responsible for preparing the Foundation's budget and obtaining a group photograph of the Foundation's board of directors.

         The City offered evidence that Kaplan's work performance declined quickly during the summer of 2011, as Kaplan repeatedly failed to complete tasks in a timely and professional manner. The City also offered evidence of insubordinate conduct by Kaplan: sending a rude, unprofessional email to a co-worker; and distributing a memorandum throughout the department that challenged his supervisors' authority. Although Kaplan received repeated counseling from his supervisors, the City concluded that his performance did not improve.

         Following these events, the City removed Kaplan's responsibilities regarding the Sugar Land Legacy Foundation and cultural arts program, and it eventually decided to terminate Kaplan. Parks and Recreation Department Director James Browne, Kaplan's direct supervisor Christopher Mobley, and human resources representative Shelly Freeman met with Kaplan and informed him that the City had decided it was in its best interest to discharge him. They cited his decline in work performance over the last several months, his repeated failure to perform his assignments, and his refusal to improve his conduct. Rather than firing Kaplan, the City gave him the option to resign or retire. In response, Kaplan declined the opportunity to resign or retire and accused the City of discriminating against him because of his age. The City terminated Kaplan's employment.

         Kaplan then sued the City, alleging it had fired him because of his age in violation of the TCHRA.[1] The City filed a traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment on Kaplan's age-discrimination claim. The trial court granted the City's motion and signed a final judgment dismissing Kaplan's suit with prejudice. This appeal followed.

         Analysis

         I. Standard of review

         We review summary judgments de novo. Valence Operating Co. v. Dorsett, 164 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tex. 2005). When the trial court grants the judgment without specifying the grounds, we affirm the summary judgment if any of the grounds presented is meritorious. Dow Chem. Co. v. Francis, 46 S.W.3d 237, 242 (Tex. 2001). Here, the City moved for summary judgment on both traditional and no-evidence grounds; thus, we apply the standard of review appropriate for each type of summary judgment, taking as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant, and indulging every reasonable inference and resolving all doubts in the nonmovant's favor. Dias v. Goodman Mfg. Co., L.P., 214 S.W.3d 672, 675 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2007, pet. denied).

         A movant for traditional summary judgment has the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c). To be entitled to traditional summary judgment, a defendant must conclusively negate at least one essential element of each of the plaintiff's causes of action or conclusively establish each element of an affirmative defense. Dias, 214 S.W.3d at 676. Once the defendant establishes its right to summary judgment as a matter of law, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to present evidence raising a genuine issue of material fact. Id.

         A movant may obtain a no-evidence summary judgment if there is no evidence of one or more essential elements of a claim on which the nonmovant has the burden of proof. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(i). We sustain a no-evidence summary judgment when (a) there is a complete absence of a vital fact; (b) the court is barred by rules of law or of evidence from giving weight to the only evidence offered to prove a vital fact; (c) the evidence offered to prove a vital fact is no more than a mere scintilla; or (d) the evidence conclusively establishes the opposite of the vital fact. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc. v. Havner, 953 S.W.2d 706, 711 (Tex. 1997). If the nonmovant produces more than a scintilla of evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact, the trial court cannot grant a no-evidence summary judgment. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(i). More than a scintilla of evidence exists when the evidence rises to a level that would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to differ in their conclusions as to the existence of the vital fact. Dworschak v. Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling, Inc., 352 S.W.3d 191, 196 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2011, no pet.).

         II. Applicable law

         Under the TCHRA, "[a]n employer commits an unlawful employment practice if because of . . . age the employer . . . discharges an individual, or discriminates in any other manner against an individual in connection with compensation or the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment." Tex. Lab. Code. Ann. § 21.051(1). By adopting the TCHRA, the Legislature "intended to correlate state law with federal law in employment discrimination cases." AutoZone, Inc. v. Reyes, 272 S.W.3d 588, 592 (Tex. 2008) (quoting Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Canchola, 121 S.W.3d 735, 739 (Tex. 2003)); see Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 21.001(1) (West 2015). We therefore look to federal law to interpret the TCHRA's provisions. AutoZone, Inc., 272 S.W.3d at 592.

         Texas courts "follow the settled approach of the U.S. Supreme Court in recognizing two alternative methods of proof" in cases alleging disparate treatment based on age.[2] Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d 629, 634 (Tex. 2012). One method is by direct evidence of the City's actions or words. Id. The second method, which is relevant here, involves circumstantial evidence of discrimination. Rosenberg v. KIPP, Inc., 458 S.W.3d 171, 175 (Tex. App.- Houston [14th Dist.] 2015, pet. denied).

         In evaluating circumstantial evidence, Texas courts use the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802- 05 (1973). See Garcia, 372 S.W.3d at 634; Baker v. Gregg County, 33 S.W.3d 72, 80 (Tex. App.-Texarkana 2000, pet. dism'd). A terminated employee proceeding under this framework must first make a prima facie case of age discrimination, showing that he was (1) a member of the class protected by the TCHRA (i.e. at least forty years old), (2) qualified for his employment position, (3) terminated by the employer, and (4) replaced by someone younger or otherwise discharged because of age. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d at 632; Hernandez v. Grey Wolf Drilling, L.P., 350 S.W.3d 281, 284 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2011, no pet.). If a plaintiff meets the "minimal" initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, he is entitled to a presumption of discrimination. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d at 634. The burden then shifts to the defendant to show that the plaintiff was terminated for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory purpose. Gonzalez v. Champion Tech., Inc., 384 S.W.3d 462, 466 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2012, no pet.) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142-43 (2000)). If the defendant articulates a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show either that the stated reason was a pretext for discrimination or that even if the reason was true, discrimination was also a motivating factor for the adverse employment action. Navy v. Coll. of the Mainland, 407 S.W.3d 893, 899 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.).

         The summary judgment burdens described above must also be taken into account. "Texas courts have reconciled [the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting] framework with our summary judgment procedure by requiring an employer moving for traditional summary judgment to establish as a matter of law a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment action, at which point the burden shifts to the employee to raise a fact issue regarding whether the employer's reason was a pretext for discrimination." Haver v. Coats, 491 S.W.3d 877, 883 n.3 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2016, no pet.); see M.D. Anderson Hosp. v. Willrich, 28 S.W.3d 22, 24 (Tex. 2000). In addition, an employer may obtain a no-evidence summary judgment if, for example, there is no evidence of one or more elements of the employee's prima facie case, or no evidence that the employer's reason was a pretext for discrimination. E.g., Chandler v. CSC Applied Tech., LLC, 376 S.W.3d 802, 822 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, pet. denied); McCoy v. Tex. Instruments, Inc., 183 S.W.3d 548, 555-56 (Tex. App.- Dallas 2006, no pet.).

         III. The trial court properly granted summary judgment for the City.

         A. Kaplan established a prima facie case of ...


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