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Nash v. Optomec, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 1, 2017

Thomas Nash Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
Optomec, Inc. Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: October 20, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before RILEY, Chief Judge, LOKEN and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

          RILEY, Chief Judge.

         Thomas Nash filed suit against Optomec, Inc., alleging the company fired him on account of his age in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01, et seq. The district court[1] granted Optomec's motion for summary judgment, finding Nash failed to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination, and even if he had, there was insufficient evidence to suggest the lawful reason Optomec gave for its decision was pretext for an underlying unlawful motive. Nash appeals, see 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (appellate jurisdiction), and we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In fall 2011, Nash enrolled in the nanoscience technology program at Dakota County Technical College (Dakota Tech). Some time later, Nash and his classmates toured Optomec's advanced applications lab in St. Paul, Minnesota, which develops 3-D printing systems. Nash needed to complete an internship in order to finish his program, and after the tour, he decided to pursue one with Optomec. Two interviews later, John Lees, Optomec's then-49-year-old Vice President of Engineering, offered Nash a full-time paid internship for the summer and fall of 2013. The offer did not contain any guarantee of post-internship employment, nor did either party have that understanding. Nash was 54 years old when he was offered and accepted the position.

         During his tenure at Optomec, Nash's duties included taking measurements, recording data, and operating and maintaining the lab equipment. Nash performed these duties alongside three interns: Travis Evans, Chenxing Pei, and Dan Bakke, each of whom was an engineering student at the University of Minnesota and in his early twenties.[2] Nash claims Lees began exhibiting a "pattern of preference" for these younger interns almost immediately. According to Nash, he received the "cold shoulder" from Lees, while Evans was sent on expenses-paid work trips and Pei made $2 more per hour than he did. Notably, neither Pei nor Bakke were ever sent on work trips, and Evans and Bakke both made $16 per hour just as Nash.

          Nash's internship ended in December 2013. Despite believing he was treated less favorably than his peers, Nash described his experience positively in post-internship reports to Dakota Tech. Nash also felt he was "very well prepared" for the internship and gave himself high marks in various performance-related categories for his self-assessment. In comparison, the district court accurately summarized Optomec's evaluation of Nash as "fairly tepid." Though commending his spreadsheet skills and "much appreciated discipline and rigor, " Lees noted that tasks requiring "physical skill or dexterity" were difficult for Nash and "[u]nderstanding and troubleshooting systems [was] also a bit beyond him." Lees expressed his belief that "[p]revious interns had more learning potential."

         When Nash received his associates degree from Dakota Tech he immediately inquired about a permanent position with Optomec. Lees spoke with John Wright, an engineer at Optomec, about the idea of hiring Nash. Wright, age 52, echoed Lees's concerns: Nash "wasn't a particularly skilled technician" and "required very specific instructions and step-by-step instructions on how to complete a task." But despite Wright's criticism and his own apprehension, Lees offered Nash a full-time position. Nash, now 55 years old, accepted and began work as an at-will employee in January 2014.

         As Optomec's lone full-time lab technician, Nash worked on several projects over the following months that he claims demonstrated his hard work, value, and skill. Still, according to Nash, Lees continued to treat the younger interns more favorably in many of the same ways he had during Nash's internship. For example, Evans continued to be sent on work trips that "gave him troubleshooting and teamwork experiences not offered to Nash." Nash felt "humiliated" when Lees "went to great lengths to highlight his concern to other employees" about Bakke's exposure to hazardous chemicals after a lab spill in April 2014. Lees expressed no such concern about Nash's exposure despite the fact Nash, not Bakke, led the cleanup effort.

          As Nash's concerns were apparently mounting, so too were Optomec's. By May 2014, Nash had amassed a considerable amount of experience, but his abilities had not grown like Wright and Lees had hoped. According to Wright, Nash "did well at following explicit instructions, but when you asked him to step back and maybe look at things []holistically, he struggled with putting that all together." Lees agreed, and believed "[Nash] was not-not progressing beyond the kind of basic lab skills. . . . [S]ome of the issues with his performance were not getting better." Nash's struggles with troubleshooting and critical thinking were an even bigger problem when Lees began to look ahead: "The business was growing. There was going to be a need to support more customers. We needed just a higher level of functionality across the board on the team." This realization led Lees to change his views as to what he wanted from lab technicians-he now considered it "a way to bring people into the technology" in hopes they would "grow and progress beyond that point." To Lees, Nash had not exhibited the capacity to "take it to that next level." Lees shared his concerns with David Ramahi, Optomec's Chief Executive Officer, who left the decision up to Lees, but encouraged him to "be decisive and take action."

         Lees fired Nash on June 6, 2014, less than six months after he had hired him. Lees told Nash the decision "was not performance related, " but that the company was going in a "different direction." The parties dispute exactly what happened next, yet both sides agree Nash was upset and the situation became tense as Nash complained about the lack of warning and claimed he was being discriminated against. A few days later, Nash exercised his right under Minnesota law to request a letter from Optomec explaining why he was fired. See Minn. Stat. § 181.933, subdiv. 1. In its response, Optomec noted Nash's performance was "satisfactory in terms of performing more menial tasks, " but ultimately explained he "unfortunately [did] not possess the full breadth of skills required to successfully meet the challenges required of [his] position, " like independent troubleshooting.

          Nash filed an administrative charge with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which found no probable cause to believe unlawful discrimination occurred and issued him a right-to-sue letter. Nash filed suit against Optomec for age discrimination in violation of Minn. Stat. § 363A.08, subdiv. 2(2).[3] After discovery, the district court granted Optomec's motion for summary judgment, deciding Nash failed to establish his prima facie case under the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis. The district court bolstered its decision by finding that even if Nash could satisfy his initial burden, "Optomec ...


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