Main Menu

Federal Court Dismisses Age Discrimination Lawsuit by Terminated Stagehand

October 3, 2007

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York has granted a motion for summary judgment by KMM’s client, a major New York City performing arts venue, dismissing a claim of age discrimination brought by a terminated stagehand.  Muller v. New York City Center, 05-CV-9912 (October 1, 2007).

The plaintiff, William Muller, was employed for a number of years by City Center as a carpenter.  During most of that period, the applicable collective bargaining agreement with Local One, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, did not contain the customary provision permitting the termination of an employee only for “just cause.”  In 2003, a “just cause” provision was negotiated into the agreement, but the provision was to take effect only after a one-year trial period.  During the interim, City Center evaluated the performance of its stagehand crew and decided to terminate the employment of the head carpenter and the other members of the carpentry crew, including Muller who was 57 years old at the time.

Muller brought suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), alleging that his employment was terminated because of his age.  After the conclusion of discovery, City Center moved for summary judgment, setting forth several legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for Muller’s termination.  For example, City Center pointed to a practice in the industry, under which the termination of a stagehand department head ordinarily results in the termination of the entire crew, so that the new head can choose the members of his crew.  In addition, City Center demonstrated that Muller had various performance deficiencies.  While those deficiencies had not required his termination in the past, City Center elected to more closely scrutinize the performance of the stagehands prior to the date the “just cause” provision was to take effect, because it would become much more difficult thereafter to terminate a poor performer.

The Court rejected Muller’s contention that these grounds were a pretext for age discrimination.  In particular, the Court found it insufficient to prove discrimination that Muller’s replacement was significantly younger.  In that regard, the Court took special note of the fact that the individuals who made the termination decision were both over 40 years old and therefore, like Muller, were in the age class protected by the ADEA.  In addition, the Court found that certain age-related comments made in the workplace by a supervisor were mere “stray remarks” that did not bear on the motive for Muller’s termination.  Accordingly, the Court granted City Center’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the lawsuit in its entirety.