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Garcia v. Ensign United States Drilling Inc.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 29, 2016

PETE GARCIA, Plaintiff,


          CHRISTINE M. ARGUELLO United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Ensign United States Drilling, Inc.'s (Ensign) Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, in which Ensign contends that Plaintiff Pete Garcia presents no genuine dispute as to any material fact related to his age discrimination claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). (Doc. # 31.) For the following reasons, the Court denies the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are undisputed.

         Mr. Garcia began working for Ensign in 2000 and spent most of his tenure there working as a derrickhand on Ensign drilling rigs. (Doc. # 31 at ¶¶ 1-2.) In June 2012, Mr. Garcia requested a transfer from Ensign Rig No. 161 in North Dakota to Ensign Rig No. 17 in Limon, Colorado. (Id. at ¶¶ 6-7.) At the time, the only position open on Rig No 17 was an entry-level floorhand position. (Id. at ¶ 10.) The “Driller” on Rig No. 17 was Jeff Harrington, and the Senior Rig Manager (Mr. Harrington's direct supervisor) was Ron Gentry. (Id. at ¶¶ 8, 12, 14.) Mr. Harrington interviewed Mr. Garcia for the open floorhand position, and with Mr. Gentry's approval and recommendation, Mr. Harrington hired Mr. Garcia at the time of the interview. (Id. at ¶¶ 17, 19, 20.)

         In October 2012, after about four months working as a floorhand, Ensign terminated Mr. Garcia from his position. (Doc. #31, Appx. at 12.) Mr. Garcia was fifty-seven years old at the time. (Doc. # 32 at ¶ 5.) On October 26, 2015, Mr. Garcia initiated this suit against Ensign, alleging that his termination violated the ADEA. (Doc. # 1.)

         On September 1, 2016, Ensign filed the instant motion for summary judgment (Doc. # 31), contending that Mr. Garcia cannot demonstrate genuinely disputed issues of material fact with regard to the legality of his termination. Ensign specifically argues that, even if age played a factor in Mr. Garcia's termination, it was not the “but-for cause” and Mr. Garcia cannot present undisputed evidence suggesting otherwise. In his response (Doc. # 32), Mr. Garcia argues the contrary position-that summary judgment is unwarranted because direct and circumstantial evidence sufficiently demonstrate a genuine dispute over issues of material fact regarding whether age was the determinative factor in his termination.


         Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In applying this standard, the Court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). A fact is material if, under the applicable substantive law, it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim. Id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute of fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

         The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating an absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Id. at 670-71. Once the movant has met this initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. The nonmoving party may not simply rest upon its pleadings to satisfy its burden. Id. Rather, the nonmoving party must set forth specific facts that would be admissible in evidence in the event of trial from which a rational trier of fact could find for the nonmoving. Adler, 144 F.3d at 671. To accomplish this, the facts must be identified by reference to affidavits, deposition transcripts, or specific exhibits incorporated therein. Id.


         As mentioned, Mr. Garcia brings one claim for relief-discrimination under the ADEA, which prohibits an employer from terminating an employee “because of such individual's age.” See 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). The ADEA enables employers to exercise “sound business judgment in personnel matters[; they] may discipline and terminate at will employees for any reason, so long as such termination is not unlawful.” Kosak v. Catholic Health Initiatives of Colo., No. 08-cv-01505, 2009 WL 3497782, at *4 (D. Colo. Oct. 28, 2009) (unpublished).

         To prevail on a claim under the ADEA, a plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence (which may be direct or circumstantial) that age was the “‘but-for' cause of the employer's adverse decision.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs. Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 176- 78 (2009); Riggs v. AirTran Airways, Inc., 497 F.3d 1108, 1114 (10th Cir. 2007). The “but for” causal standard does “not require[ ] [plaintiffs] to show that age was the sole motivating factor in the employment decision.” Jones v. Oklahoma City Pub. Sch., 617 F.3d 1273, 1277-78 (10th Cir. 2010) (quoting Wilkerson v. Shinseki, 606 F.3d 1256, 1266 (10th Cir. 2010)). Instead, an employer may be held liable under the ADEA if other factors contributed to its taking an adverse action, as long as “age was the factor that made a difference.” Id. (quoting Wilkerson, 606 F.3d at 1266); accord Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins, 507 U.S. 604, 610, 113 S.Ct. 1701, 123 L.Ed.2d 338 (1993) (requiring an ADEA plaintiff to show that age had a “determinative influence on the outcome” of her employer's decision-making process).

         In cases of circumstantial evidence, “plaintiffs may use the McDonnell Douglas . . . analysis to prove age discrimination under the ADEA.” Jones, 617 F.3d at 1278; see McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under that analysis, a plaintiff bears the initial burden of setting forth a prima facie case that: “1) [he] is a member of the class protected by the [ADEA]; 2) [he] suffered an adverse employment action; 3) [he] was qualified for the position at issue; and 4) [h]e was treated less favorably than others not in the protected class.” Sanchez v. Denver Pub. Schs., 164 F.3d 527, 531 (10th Cir. 1998). Throughout the analysis, “[t]he plaintiff ... carries ...

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