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First Circuit Extinguishes Fire Chief’s Claim That Ethics Investigation Was a Smokescreen for Age Discrimination

In Robinson v. Town of Marshfield, 950 F.3d 21 (1st Cir. 2020), the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of the Town of Marshfield on an age discrimination claim brought by its former Fire Chief. The Court concluded that the plaintiff had failed to prove that an ethics investigation pursued by the Town was trumped up as a pretext to oust him from the position due to his age.

Robinson retired from his position at the age of sixty, after a law firm hired by the Town issued a report concluding that sufficient evidence existed to notify the state Ethics Commission that he may have committed violations of conflict of interest laws in his dealings with other family members working for the Fire Department. Insisting that he was constructively discharged due to his age, in violation of the Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA), and that the investigation was mishandled and the allegations of misconduct him were merely a pretext for discrimination, Robinson filed a claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and subsequently filed a complaint in federal court against the Town and local officials.  A federal judge entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants and Robinson appealed.

Employing the burden-shifting scheme applicable to employment discrimination claims, the First Circuit assumed that Robinson could satisfy his initial burden to demonstrate that he was constructively discharged, although the lower court found that he failed to make such a showing. Once he did so, the burden would shift to the Town to “articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decision.” The Court found that the evidence offered by the Town – indicating that the investigation was prompted by complaints about Robinson’s job performance and management style, morale issues within the department, and ethical concerns regarding potential conflict of interest violations – was sufficient to make such a showing. Accordingly, the burden of proof shifted back to Robinson to present evidence to support a finding that the Town’s rationale was a mere pretext for discrimination.

In support of his pretext argument, Robinson claimed that the law firm’s investigation had been mishandled and that the evidence was not sufficient to support a finding that he had committed any ethics violations. The Court ruled that his challenges were misplaced, because the relevant inquiry was not whether a reasonable juror would find in his favor regarding the conflict of interest violations, but whether the Town reasonably believed that the allegations against him were valid. Finding no evidence to support the suggestion that the Town’s articulated non-discriminatory reasons for initiating the investigation were merely pretextual and meant to cover up a discriminatory motive, the First Circuit affirmed the entry of summary judgment on the federal ADEA claims. Having disposed of the only federal claims, the Court dismissed Robinson’s other state-law claims, concluding that they should be resolved in state court.