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Braden v. Lockheed Martin Corp.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 18, 2017


          Rahul Munshi, Esq. (pro hac vice) Laura C. Mattiacci, Esq. Susan M. Saint-Antoine, Esq. Emily Rose Derstine Friesen, Esq. Console Mattiacci, LLC, -and- Stephen G. Console, Esq. Megan Knowlton Balne, Esq. Console Mattiacci, LLC Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Anjanette Cabrera, Esq. Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete -and- Tamika Nordstrom, Esq, (pro hac vice) Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete -and-Rodrick D. Holmes, Esq. (pro hac vice) Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete -and-Michael Gaston-Bell, Esq. (pro hac vice) Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete Kansas City, MO 64108 -and-Kannon K. Shanmugam, Esq. (pro hac vice) Williams & Connolly LLP, Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION DKT. NO. 114]

          RENÉE MARIE BUMB, United States District Judge

         At the close of a four-day trial, a jury found that Defendant Lockheed Martin Corp. (“Defendant” or “Lockheed”) discriminated against Plaintiff Robert Braden (“Plaintiff” or “Braden”) on the basis of age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq. (“ADEA”), and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. § 10:5-1, et seq. (the “NJLAD”). The jury awarded Plaintiff $520, 000 for lost wages and benefits, $520, 000 for emotional distress, and $50, 000, 000 in punitive damages.[1]

         This matter now comes before the Court upon the filing of an omnibus post-trial Motion by Defendant seeking judgment as a matter of law as to both liability and damages pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), a New Trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59, or Remittitur of the jury's emotional distress and punitive damages awards. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law shall be DENIED, Defendant's Motion for a New Trial shall be GRANTED, in part, and DENIED, in part, and Defendant's Motion for Remittitur of emotional damages shall be DENIED. Because the Court grants Defendant's motion for a new trial on the issue of punitive damages, it need not reach Defendant's motion to remit the punitive damages award.

         I. Background

         a. Procedural Background

         On July 2, 2014 Plaintiff filed a two-count complaint alleging that Lockheed terminated his employment because of his age, in violation of the ADEA and the NJLAD. This Court has jurisdiction over plaintiff's ADEA claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and exercises supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's NJLAD claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

         Lockheed moved for summary judgment on October 20, 2015, seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's discrimination claims on two bases. First, Defendant argued that Plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case of age discrimination under the framework initially set forth by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).[2] Specifically, Lockheed argued that the evidence of record was insufficient to establish that a similarly situated younger person was retained or hired to fill Plaintiff's position. See Anderson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 297 F.3d 242, 249 (3d Cir. 2002). Second, Lockheed contended that even had Plaintiff established a prima facie case of age discrimination, Lockheed had proffered a legitimate, non-discriminatory business reason for terminating Plaintiff --current or projected lack of work -- and Plaintiff had failed to establish that such reason was pretextual.

         On May 11, 2016, this Court issued a Memorandum Order denying summary judgment, finding that (i) whether employees retained by Lockheed were sufficiently “similarly situated” to Plaintiff was a genuinely disputed issue of fact which a jury should resolve, and (ii) Plaintiff had identified sufficient evidence of pretext to survive summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 35). Lockheed filed a motion for reconsideration on May 23, 2016, which this Court denied on July 28, 2016. (Dkt. No. 39).

         On January 6, 2017, Lockheed filed two motions in limine seeking to exclude various evidence and testimony and to bifurcate the issues of liability and damages at trial. Among other things, Lockheed sought to exclude testimony regarding an age discriminatory remark allegedly made by Jay Hansen, Plaintiff's direct manager's (James Judd) manager at the time of the alleged comment, about “getting rid” of Plaintiff, as well as testimony from Plaintiff regarding the emotional distress he suffered as a result of his termination. With regard to Hansen's statement, Lockheed argued that it was alleged to have been made so long before Plaintiff's termination that it could not possibly be relevant, and that even if it were relevant it was unduly prejudicial. With regard to Plaintiff's testimony regarding his emotional distress, Lockheed argued that Plaintiff, as a lay person, was not competent to testify regarding what Lockheed qualified as medical diagnoses, and that any such testimony would be unduly prejudicial.

         The Court held oral argument on the Defendant's motions on January 19, 2017. At that hearing, the Court made several rulings, one of which is relevant to the pending motions. As is discussed in greater detail below, the Court denied Lockheed's request to exclude testimony regarding Jay Hansen's alleged comment about “getting rid” of Plaintiff, holding, in general, that the comment set the gears of discrimination in motion, and the jury could decide what weight to give the testimony, if any. (1/19/17 Oral Arg. Tr. at 7:17-8:25).

         A jury trial was held from January 23, 2017 through January 26, 2017. Plaintiff called three witnesses: Dennis Gillespie, a Human Resources Business Partner for Lockheed at the time Plaintiff worked there; Christopher Kebalo, a Director with oversight of the unit in which Plaintiff worked; and Plaintiff himself. Plaintiff also relied on various documentary evidence, which constituted a significant portion of his case and much of which is described in further detail below. At the close of the Plaintiff's case-in-chief, Defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50. Defendant argued that Plaintiff had failed to present evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to find that Lockheed had retained a similarly situated younger employee when it terminated Plaintiff. (Trial Transcript “Tr.” 295:5-7). The Court denied the motion, finding that Plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to warrant submission of the case to the jury.

         Defendant called James Judd, Plaintiff's manager from the early 2000s; Hansen, the upper-level manager from Lockheed whom Plaintiff alleged had made age-related comments about Plaintiff; Gillespie, the Human Resources Business Partner; Christopher Renna, the manager of Plaintiff's unit at the time of his termination and the individual who selected Plaintiff for termination; and Kebalo, the Director of the unit. At the close of its case, Defendant again moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that Plaintiff had failed to submit sufficient evidence to establish that Lockheed had retained a similarly situated younger employee and that Plaintiff had failed to establish that Lockheed's justification for firing Plaintiff was pretext.

         The Court denied Defendant's motion. The case was submitted to the jury, which found for Plaintiff and awarded him $520, 000 in compensatory damages and $520, 000 in emotional damages. The jury also found that Lockheed's violation had been willful, triggering an award of $520, 000 in liquidated damages under the ADEA. See 29 U.S.C. § 626(b).

         After reaching a verdict on liability, the jury heard Plaintiff's case on punitive damages, which consisted of Plaintiff's testimony, in his capacity as a Lockheed shareholder and long-time employee, about the worth of Lockheed. (Tr. 733- 742). Plaintiff initially sought to question in-house counsel for Lockheed, who was present at trial, but relented upon Defendant's objection. (Tr. 720-23). Defendant cross-examined Plaintiff but presented no witnesses of its own. Defendant did not move for judgment as a matter of law at the close of the punitive phase. After a short deliberation, the jury returned a punitive damages award of $50, 000, 000. Defendant orally moved to remit the jury's award. The Court responded that it would receive the parties' written submissions.

         The Court entered Judgment on February 6, 2017. On March 6, 2017, the parties filed the pending motions.

         b. Trial

         As noted above, the jury found for Plaintiff after a four-day trial. The following constitutes a summary of the evidence presented at trial.[3]

         Plaintiff was born on February 27, 1946. He was hired as an engineer by RCA, a predecessor to Lockheed, in December, 1984, and remained employed with the company, through a series of mergers, until 2012 when he was terminated as part of a Reduction-in-Force (“RIF”), a mass layoff by the company. Plaintiff was 66 years old at the time of his termination, and he maintains that he was selected for the RIF because of his age.

         i. Plaintiff's Positions at Lockheed; Corporate Structure

         Plaintiff served in a number of positions in his 28 years at Lockheed. In 2010, he was moved for the final time from the “New Ventures” program to the Hardware Engineering Organization (“Hardware Engineering”) within the Mission Systems and Sensors (“MS2”) business unit. At the time of his termination, Plaintiff was serving as a Project Specialist, Senior Staff (“PSSS”) and working largely on “Anti-Tamper” technology.[4] Employees designated as PSSS were engineers with significant technical experience, but did not typically have other employees reporting directly to them. Plaintiff was part of a group of employees who reported directly to Christopher Renna, a staff manager in the MS2 unit. The other PSSS employees in Plaintiff's group were James Reynolds and Kim Tighe who were 47 and 34 years old, respectively, at the time of the RIF. Neither Reynolds nor Tighe was terminated.

         Renna, in turn, reported to Christopher Kebalo, the Director of Hardware Engineering. Kebalo's direct superior was Jay Hansen. Hardware Engineering fell within the ambit of “Tech Ops, ” and the Vice President in charge of “Tech Ops” for MS2 was Norm Malnak.

         ii. Performance Evaluations

         During Plaintiff's time at Lockheed the company undertook a yearly formal evaluation process for its employees. Throughout the year, individuals who worked closely with or who had firsthand knowledge of the employee's performance, known as “multi-raters, ” could provide written feedback through Lockheed's automated performance review system. In Plaintiff's case, these individuals were typically project managers and other employees working with Plaintiff on projects to which he was assigned.

         At the end of each evaluation period, a manager would generate an overall score for an employee, taking multi-rater feedback into account. As noted, at the time Plaintiff was selected for the RIF, his manager was Christopher Renna. The manager would bring this preliminary numeric rating to a “rating and ranking session” with other managers to discuss the rankings for all of the employees in a given group. The outcome of this process was an overall rating from 1 to 5 (best to worst) for each person. These ratings were subject to a required distribution put in place by Lockheed so that the employees could be ranked against one another. Occasionally, to meet these rating distribution targets, some employees' scores would be lowered. Managers had discretion regarding the information ultimately documented in the final written review as well as the employee's final rating and ranking.

         In 2010 and 2011 -- the two years preceding his termination -- Plaintiff was rated as a “Basic Contributor, ” the second lowest possible score. (Pl. Tr. Ex. “PTX”-4, 6). At trial, Plaintiff testified that these reviews and the review process were manipulated by Lockheed as a way to push him out. Plaintiff testified, in essence, that from as early as 2001, his scores were artificially lowered to the point that they were inconsistent with his multi-rater feedback. (See PTX-5, 7). He also testified and presented evidence that in his later years at the company, the younger employees in his group, particularly Reynolds (age 47 at the time of Plaintiff's termination), received scores that were artificially high when compared to their multi-rater feedback.

         Plaintiff testified that around 2002, the first time he received a score that he felt was unfairly low, he approached his manager, Judd, who told him that Hansen, Judd's supervisor, had stated “Rob's been there too long, it's time to get rid of him.” Both Judd and Hansen testified at trial, and both denied that this statement was ever made. Although Plaintiff testified that Hansen was not his supervisor at the time of the RIF and that he was not aware if Hansen played any role in the decision to include him in the RIF, he also testified that the rankings from one year would be used as a “starting point” for future rankings. (Tr. 162:1-3).

         At trial, Defendant contested both the fact of Plaintiff's reviews being contrived and whether the reviews were the basis of his termination. Defendant presented testimony through both Renna and Kebalo that the RIF was an age-neutral process taken as a measure to curb rising costs to customers. Both Renna and Kebalo also testified that Plaintiff was selected for the RIF due to “workload softness” -- a current and projected lack of work. Defendant also presented testimony through Renna that Plaintiff was “difficult” to work with, leading to bad reviews and contributing, at least in part, to his lack of work. As proof that Plaintiff was experiencing “workload softness, ” Defendant presented an email sent from Renna to Kebalo in July 2011, warning that Plaintiff would be going “idle” part-time because some of the projects on which he was working were “being stopped for the near future.” (Def. Tr. Ex. “DTX”-39). iii. Lockheed's Documentation Plaintiff relied heavily at trial on documentary evidence, specifically a Power Point presentation titled “MS2 Workforce Reduction Analyses and Recommendation” (the “RIF Analysis”). (PTX-19). The RIF Analysis was prepared by Lockheed[5] in February 2012 and contained a series of slides summarizing the reasons for the RIF and the methodology to be used in carrying it out. The title slide listed the names of eleven high level Lockheed employees, including Norm Malnak.

         The RIF Analysis set forth the “Business Case for [the] 2012 MS2 Reduction.” (See PTX-19 at 1074). According to this analysis, MS2 had become “top heavy” with too many upper-level employees and a “shrinking talent pipeline.” (Id. at 1086). This called for MS2 to “Do 8.4% (479) Upper Level Exempt Reductions and Hire 185 Entry Levels.” (Id. at 1074)(emphasis in original). The stated purpose of this reduction of upper level employees and influx of entry levels was “Aligning [the] Engineering Workforce to Future Customer Affordability, With [the] Right Skills.” (Id.)(emphasis in original). Lockheed referred to the end result of this process as a “re-energized” entry level pipeline. (Id. at 1079). Multiple witnesses testified at trial that this “pipeline” tended to refer to younger employees.

         iv. Voluntary Layoff Program

         The RIF consisted of two stages, which Lockheed announced simultaneously. First, there was a “Voluntary Layoff Incentive Program” (“VLIP”) through which employees could voluntarily leave the company and receive a payout. There was no age requirement for the VLIP, but according to the RIF, only employees at “Level 3” -- non “entry-level” -- and above were eligible. The VLIP served as “risk mitigation for involuntary selection adverse impact.” (PTX-19 at 1075). In connection with the VLIP, Lockheed prepared, among other things, three charts analyzing “employees with a high probability of accepting VLIP” and an analysis of a previous RIF. (Id. at 1075, 755). Each of the three charts divided employees into groups based on age and years of service with the company. Only employees who were at least 50 years old and had at least 15 years of service were included in these charts. (Id. at 1081-83). These charts further highlighted those employees who were at least 60 years old and had been with the company for at least 15 years. (Id.)

         Defendant presented testimony through Kebalo that these charts were not evidence of Lockheed targeting older employees, but were merely an assessment of those most likely to volunteer. This analysis was necessary, according to Kebalo, because the company had to prepare itself for the loss of experienced employees that this layoff would inevitably bring about. In fact, Kebalo testified, the company did not desire such a result, but considered it a threat. To further support its position that the VLIP was not aimed at older employees, Defendant presented the testimony of Gillespie -- who had accepted a voluntary layoff -- that employees interested in participating in the VLIP had to apply, and that some employees who applied for the VLIP were rejected. (Tr. at 384-85).

         v. Involuntary Layoffs/Communities of Interest

         At the conclusion of the VLIP, there was an involuntary layoff during which certain employees who had not volunteered were selected for termination. Lockheed prepared a schedule for the involuntary portion of the RIF that called for management to take several steps before selecting employees for involuntary termination. (See PTX-19 at 1076). The step most critical to this case was the one that required Lockheed to create “Communities of Interest” (“COI”), which were groupings of employees based on their skills and the type of work they were doing. COIs were further divided by employee “level, ” which is based on position and years of service, among other things. Once these COIs were created and employees were placed into them, managers and directors were to identify which COIs would be affected by the RIF, create a list of “critical skills” for each COI, rank the employees in each COI, and finally select those to be laid off. (Id.)

         The undisputed evidence at trial was that Lockheed, and specifically Renna, placed Plaintiff in a COI of one. (Tr. 125:21-25). He was placed in the “Digital Design” COI, and was the only Level 5 employee placed in that group. This COI was eliminated. Because Renna place Plaintiff into a COI of one, the RIF's further directives, such as ranking, became moot. In other words, no one at Lockheed ever created a list of “critical skills” for Plaintiff in connection with the RIF, nor did anyone -- or was it possible to -- rank him within his COI. Lockheed attempted to justify its placement of Plaintiff into a COI of one by presenting evidence through Kebalo and Renna that Plaintiff was the only employee in MS2 doing the type of work he was doing. They testified that it was not necessary to further determine Plaintiff's “critical skills” because his entire COI was subject to “workload softness” and needed to be eliminated. Plaintiff, however, disputed this testimony. He testified that “Digital Design” did not accurately reflect his skillset or the work he was doing. As noted, Plaintiff was transferred into Renna's group in 2010, and Renna testified that he had never made an effort to learn what skills Plaintiff had developed up to that point. Renna testified that he “never had a meeting to probe [Plaintiff's] skills [sic] sets, ” and that he never had a “conversation” with anyone who had previously worked with Plaintiff to determine what Plaintiff was good at. (Id. at 492:4-11).

         II. Judgment as a Matter of Law

         a. Legal Standard

         A motion for judgment as a matter of law may be granted where “a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). If the Court denies a motion for judgment as a matter of law raised during trial, the moving party may renew that motion post-trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). In order to preserve the right to renew a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the moving party must raise a Rule 50(a) motion with “sufficient specificity to put the [nonmovant] on notice” before the case is submitted to the jury. Williams v. Runyon, 130 F.3d 568, 571-72 (3d Cir. 1997).

         A Rule 50 motion “should only be granted if ‘the record is critically deficient of that minimum quantity of evidence from which a jury might reasonably afford relief.” Raiczyk v. Ocean County Veterinary Hospital, 377 F.3d 266, 269 (3d Cir. 2004)(citing Trabal v. Wells Fargo Armored Serv. Corp., 269 F.3d 243, 249 (3d Cir. 2001)). “The question is not whether there is literally no evidence supporting the unsuccessful party, but whether there is evidence upon which a reasonable jury could properly have found its verdict.” Johnson v. Campbell, 332 F.3d 199, 204 (3d Cir. 2003)(emphasis in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In making this determination, ‘the court may not weigh the evidence, determine the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute its version of the facts for the jury's version.'” TransWeb, LLC v. 3M Innovative Properties Co., 16 F.Supp.3d 385, 391-92 (D.N.J. 2014) (quoting Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir.1993), aff'd, 812 F.3d 1295 (Fed. Cir. 2016)). The Court must “disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe . . . [t]hat is . . . give credence to the evidence favoring the nonmovant as well as that evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prod., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 151 (2000)(citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         b. Liability under the ADEA and the NJLAD

         Defendant argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because (1) Plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination under the ADEA or the NJLAD;[6](2) even if Plaintiff had established a prima facie case, Defendant offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for his termination; and (3) Plantiff failed to establish that Defendant's proffered non-discriminatory explanation was pretextual.

         Plaintiff relied on circumstantial evidence to establish his age discrimination claims. Age discrimination claims based on circumstantial evidence under both the ADEA and the NJLAD are evaluated under the McDonell Douglas burden shifting framework. Anderson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 297 F.3d 242, 249 (3d Cir. 2002)(citation omitted); Bergen Comm. Bank v. Sisler, 157 N.J. 188, 200 (1999). First, to raise the inference of discrimination, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case by showing that he or she was a member of a protected class who was qualified for the position at issue and suffered an adverse employment action. Anderson, 297 F.3d at 249 (citing Showalter v. University of Pittsburgh Med. Ctr., 190 F.3d 231, 234-35 (3d Cir. 1999); Connors v. Chrysler Financial Group, 160 F.3d at 973-74). Additionally, in the context of an RIF, a plaintiff must establish that the employer retained a “sufficiently younger” employee who was “similarly situated” to the plaintiff. Anderson, 297 F.3d at 249; Monaco v. Am. Gen. Assur. Co., 359 F.3d 296, 305 (3d Cir. 2004).

         To rebut the inference of discrimination created by the prima facie case, the defendant must “offer evidence that is sufficient, if believed, to support a finding that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the discharge.” Showalter, 190 F.3d at 235 (citations omitted). If the defendant satisfies this burden, then the plaintiff must establish that the reasons offered by Defendant are pretextual, and that the actual reason for the adverse employment action was age discrimination. Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 764 (3d Cir. 1994).

         The Court will focus its analysis on whether the evidence was sufficient for a reasonable jury to find that: Defendant retained a similarly situated younger employee when it terminated Plaintiff; Defendant offered a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for terminating Plaintiff; ...

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