Judge Veronica Rossman, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed a ruling by a Trump district judge and gave a senior employee the opportunity to prove his age discrimination claim against Frito-Lay. The April 2023 decision was in Waggoner v. Frito-Lay Inc.
What is this Case About?
Brian Waggoner began working for Frito-Lay at its Topeka plant in 2004. He received a series of six promotions over eleven years and rose to the position of process support manager. At age 40, however, the company denied a promotion to Waggoner, giving it instead to a 27-year-old worker who Waggoner had supervised. After exhausting his administrative remedies, Waggoner filed suit against Frito-Lay for discriminatory failure to promote him because of age. Among other evidence, Waggoner contended that when he complained about the promotion decision, the decision-maker told him that the corporation was “going through a youth movement.”
The case was assigned to Judge John Broomes, who was nominated to the district court in Kansas by Donald Trump. As in many discrimination cases, Waggoner contended that Frito-Lay’s alleged reasons for preferring the younger employee were pretextual and that age played an impermissible role in the decision not to promote him. But Broomes granted summary judgment to the corporation without trial, claiming that there were no disputes of material fact for a jury to resolve on the pretext issue. Waggoner appealed his case to the Tenth Circuit.
What did Judge Rossman and the Tenth Circuit Decide and Why is it Important?
Judge Rossman wrote for a unanimous panel and reversed the district court on the failure to promote claim, giving Brian Waggoner the opportunity to prove that case to a jury. Rossman carefully reviewed the record in the case and the applicable law concerning proof of pretext. She explained that although Waggoner ultimately had to prove that the corporation’s stated reasons for promoting him were pretextual, the company could not get summary judgment unless Waggoner failed to “present evidence sufficient to create a genuine factual dispute” on the issue, with any doubts “resolved in favor of the plaintiff” at this stage.
In examining the record, Judge Rossman found that Judge Broomes’ analysis “improperly views the evidence in the light most favorable to Frito-Lay, rather than in the light most favorable to Mr. Waggoner” at the summary judgment phase. Evaluated properly, she continued, Waggoner “produced evidence of age-related remarks,” and “evidence contradicting the asserted reasons for the promotion decision.” Based on this evidence, she concluded, a reasonable jury ‘could find Frito-Lay’s asserted reasons “unworthy of belief” and determine that the corporation had improperly discriminated against him based on age. The court accordingly reversed the decision against Waggoner and sent the case back to the lower court giving Waggoner a chance to prove his failure to promote claim to a jury.
Not only did Judge Rossman’s opinion give a potential age discrimination victim his day in court, but it is also important for other similarly situated individuals seeking an opportunity to prove their discrimination claims to a jury. In addition, the ruling provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden judicial nominees like Judge Rossman.