Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, nominated by President Biden to the court of appeals for the Seventh Circuit, wrote a unanimous opinion reversing a lower court and ruled that a man fired from his job as a warehouse supervisor should receive his day in court to prove that he was a victim of age discrimination. Biden judge John Lee joined the opinion. The December 2023 decision was in Vichio v US Foods, Inc.
What Happened in this Case?
Nicholas Vichio worked for four years as a “high performing” warehouse supervisor at US Foods, Inc., a corporation that supplies food to restaurants and hotels. Shortly after Charles Zadlo joined the corporation as vice president of operations, however, Vichio was placed on a performance improvement plan and then fired. Vichio was 54 when he was fired and was replaced by someone eleven years younger.
Vichio filed a lawsuit against US Foods charging it with age discrimination. The lower court granted summary judgment against him, however, claiming he did not present enough evidence to sustain his charge. He appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
How did Judges Jackson-Akiwumi and Lee and the Seventh Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?
In a unanimous ruling written by Judge Jackson-Akiwumi and joined by Judge Lee, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court and held that Vichio should get his day in court to prove his age discrimination claim to a jury. Judge Jackson-Akiwumi explained that he had presented “sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that US Foods had engaged in prohibited age discrimination.” This included “significant evidence” that the corporation had used allegations concerning his performance as a “pretext for discrimination,” such as evidence that Vichio’s record was “virtually pristine” until Zadlo took over, that Zadlo’s “reasons for being dissatisfied” with Vichio “do not hold up to scrutiny,” and that Vichio’s immediate supervisors disagreed with Zadlo’s concerns. Evidence also showed that Zadlo “looked for and hired” a younger employee to replace Vichio.
The appeals court specifically rejected US Foods’ claim that a victim like Vichio must prove both that an employer’s purported reason for firing an employee was dishonest and that the “true reason” was discriminatory. Although Vichio had presented both types of evidence here, the court explained that, under a proper interpretation of past precedent, an employer’s “dishonest explanation of a decision” can by itself “support an inference that its real reason was unlawful.”
The ruling by Judge Jackson-Akiwumi and Judge Lee is obviously important to give Nicholas Vichio his day in court to prove his age discrimination case to a jury. In addition, it sets important precedent by making clear that victims of discrimination can establish their claims by proving pretext, and are not also required to prove independently that the employer’s true reason for acting was discriminatory. This is particularly so in the Seventh Circuit, including Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. In addition, , the decision is an important reminder of the significance of promptly confirming high-quality Biden nominees like Judge Jackson-Akiwumi and Judge Lee to our federal courts.