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Fired lab worker loses discrimination appeal

July 13, 2017

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed summary judgment for an Indiana laboratory after finding a former employee failed to prove his employment termination was based on his age and his filing of two claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

When Steven Lauth began working at Covance Central Laboratories Inc. in 2006 at the age of 54, his supervisor, Donald Snyder, initially gave him mid- and end-of-the year reviews that rated Lauth as meeting expectations, but also noted his need to improve his communication style when working with his staff. Additionally, Snyder noted that Lauth could be unreceptive to help or suggestions.

Lauth’s performance reviews improved to exceeding expectations by 2010, yet Snyder still expressed concerns about how other employees perceived Lauth’s tendency to be “strong willed and an independent thinker.”

In his mid-year 2011 review of Lauth, Snyder wrote Lauth’s “‘my way’ approach is no longer acceptable to me.” Shortly after the review was issued, Snyder asked Lauth during a meeting when he planned to retire.

Then in August 2011, Lauth submitted a complaint about his co-worker, Aaron Ellsworth, claiming he bullied and intimidated Lauth and other employees. However, the complaint also said Ellsworth’s actions did not relate to unlawful harassment on the basis of race, religion, age, or the like.

Covance completed an investigation into the complaint and chose to place Ellsworth on a Performance Improvement Plan. Lauth, however, filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming he was discriminated against because of his age.

Specifically, Lauth referenced Snyder’s inquiry as to when he was going to retire, and also alleged he was retaliated against from making complaints about Ellsworth. The EEOC dismissed Lauth’s claim, and the deadline to file suit passed without action.

Snyder was eventually replaced by Christine Walters, and Imelda Marsh, who had worked alongside Snyder, witnessed Lauth behaving insubordinately toward Walters. Marsh issued a written warning and informed Lauth that further incidents could result in his termination.

Lauth was then placed on a Performance Improvement Plan, and he filed a second, similar EEOC charge. However, in October 2012, Walters received complaints from four of Lauth’s employees about his demeanor, leading to his termination.

Lauth filed the instant suit against Covance based on his second EEOC charge, alleging age discrimination and retaliation. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana granted summary judgment to Covance on both claims, so Lauth appealed in Steven A. Lauth v. Covance, Inc., 16-2939.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment Thursday, with Judge William Bauer writing that “Lauth does not cite any evidence that would allow for a reasonable inference that Covance did not have honest concerns about his communication style and behavior.” Similarly, Lauth failed to point to evidence that his termination was linked to the filing of his EEOC claims, Bauer said.

“(Lauth’s) speculation is insufficient to raise a question of fact, particularly in light of…Covance’s consistent, longstanding and progressive concerns about his behavior,” the judge wrote.

Further, the 7th Circuit also affirmed the entry of a bill of costs in favor of Covance.

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