In Mencarelli v. Alfred Williams & Co., 2016 WL 4036393(6th Cir. July 27, 2016), Karen Mencarelli was hired as an account manager for the defendant Alfred Williams & Co. (“AWC”) in 2012 at the age of 48. AWC is a furniture dealership providing space design services. She was hired by Ted Limmer, AWC’s Nashville, Tennessee market president. As an account manager, Mencarelli was primarily responsible for handling the Vanderbilt University account, one of AWC’s largest customers in that market.  AWC’s Vanderbilt account team consisted of Mencarelli, designer Piper Fritsch (a female in her late twenties or early thirties), and a project manager. Designers such as Fritsch, as well as project managers, were assigned to assist other account managers as well, of which there were five in the Nashville market.

Limmer discharged Mencarelli on March 7, 2014 and replaced her with a 29 year-old female who had worked for a competitor, and Mencarelli sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Tennessee Human Rights Act.  AWC filed for summary judgment, asserting that Limmer discharged Mencarelli because he had lost confidence in her ability to work within AWC’s team structure and that he believed Vanderbilt’s confidence in her was diminishing.  In support of the motion, Limmer’s deposition testimony was that Mencarelli interacted with Fritsch as though Fritsch were her designated designer and that he had counseled her several times for monopolizing Fritsch’s time. Limmer also testified that during an important meeting with Vanderbilt officials over a particular dormitory project, Mencarelli was the only AWC employee not taking notes and that he had counseled her that she was sending the wrong message to Vanderbilt and her AWC colleagues.  He also testified that a Vanderbilt official had advised him that she sensed tension between Mencarelli and Fritsch. Limmer also stated that Vanderbilt had decided to put the dormitory project out for bid when prior jobs had been awarded to AWC without public bid.  Finally, he testified that he had counseled Mencarelli for not taking her laptop home in the evenings while other employees worked later and typically took their work laptop home after work.

In response, Mencarelli testified that Limmer “picked on” her regarding not taking notes at the Vanderbilt meeting and for not taking her laptop home and that those issues were irrelevant to how she performed her job duties. The district court, Judge Trauger, concluded Mencarelli had presented insufficient evidence of pretext and granted the motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, Mencarelli  argued that the facts were sufficient to establish pretext as AWC’s proferred reasons were insufficient to motivate her discharge because Fritsch engaged in conduct substantially identical to Mencarelli’s but was not discharged. She also argued that AWC had presented shifting reasons for her discharge which raised an inference of pretext by showing that the reason for discharge had no basis in fact.

On the first argument, Mencarelli asserted that both she and Fritsch had engaged in “substantially identical conduct”; specifically unprofessional behavior with respect to the Vanderbilt account, yet Fritsch was not disciplined. However, the Court noted that in determining whether a comparator received different treatment relative to the plaintiff, the individuals must be “similarly situated”; that is, the plaintiff must prove that the comparator’s employment situation is nearly identical to that of the plaintiff in all relevant aspects. The Court noted that this typically requires that the comparator dealt with the same supervisor, was subject to the same standards and engaged in the same conduct without distinguishable differences.  The Court also stated that differences in job title, responsibilities, experience, and work record can be used to determine if the two employees are similarly situated.  

The Court held Mencarelli had failed to provide sufficient evidence on this issue as she was only able to show that she and Fritsch had the same ultimate supervisor (Limmer). Conversely, the evidence established that Mencarelli was the head of the Vanderbilt account while Fritsch worked on several accounts and worked with several other account managers and did not manage any accounts.

The Court likewise rejected Mencarelli’s second argument that AWC had presented shifting reasons for her discharge which raised an inference of pretext by showing that the reason for discharge had no basis in fact. On this issue, Mencarelli argued that in its interrogatory responses AWC had asserted that Vanderbilt had expressed a lack of confidence in Mencarelli, whereas in his deposition Limmer testified that no one at Vanderbilt actually complained about Mencarelli but it was his belief that Vanderbilt had lost confidence in her. The Court did not find this distinction material as Mencarelli was unable to produce any evidence that Limmer did not actually believe Vanderbilt was losing confidence after the dormitory project meeting. While Mencarelli asserted that these criticisms were not relevant, the Court found Mencarelli’s arguments amounted to nothing more than disagreements with the business judgment of Limmer, who had the discretion to evaluate account managers and decide what job performance concerns were relevant.