On February 5, 2016, the District Court of Arkansas ruled on Tyson Foods, Inc.’s motion for summary judgment, which sought, the dismissal of former employee Tammy Hesterberg’s sex and age discrimination claims and unequal pay claims.
In 2007, Tyson hired Ms. Hesterberg, at the age of forty-six, as the director of value added. Throughout her employment, she held several director positions. In August 2014, Tyson purportedly terminated her as part of a reduction in force (RIF). At that time, she was one of only three female employees in her twenty-three member group and the only female out of Tyson’s five directors in her group.
To succeed on her claims, Ms. Hesterberg must present to the court a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination. It is undisputed that Ms. Hesterberg is female, that she was qualified for her position, and that she was fired. Tyson argued that Ms. Hesterberg cannot show that similarly situated males were treated differently because each male director had different responsibilities than her. In other words, any difference in treatment between Ms. Hesterberg and the other four male directors was solely based on their different responsibilities. In response, Ms. Hesterberg argued that Tyson disseminated her job functions amongst male employees and that she was the only director terminated.
After establishing a prima facie case, the defendant must proffer a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the termination. Tyson argued that Ms. Hesterberg’s termination was due to the sale of operations in Brazil and Mexico which eliminated the need for her position. Ms. Hesterberg argued that those operations had no connection to her position or responsibilities at Tyson. Futhermore, Tyson sold those operations one year after Tyson’s public announcement of the sale. The Court was unconvinced by Tyson’s arguments and denied Tyson’s motion with regard to Ms. Hesterberg’s sex discrimination claim, finding that these issues constituted a genuine dispute of material fact.
The Court also denied summary judgment on Ms. Hesterberg’s unequal pay claims. Tyson claimed that Ms. Hesterberg was actually paid more in total compensation than the majority of male directors and that any imbalance in pay was based on factors other than sex, in accordance with Tyson’s merit-based system. Ms. Hesterberg argued that her boss and the decision-maker behind her termination, Paul Davis, had sole control over bonuses and performance reviews, resulting in a subjective and male biased performance rating system. The Court found that there are several issues of material fact, including whether there were any male comparators under similar working conditions, whether the purported merit-based bonus system was discriminatory in nature, and whether the merit-based system was non-discriminatory but inappropritately used with discriminatory intent to terminate Ms. Hesterberg, that precluded summary judgment.
However, the Court did grant Tyson’s motion to dismiss Ms. Hesterberg’s age claim. Ms. Hesterberg was forty-six years old at the time she was hired and fifty-four at the time of her termination. The other directors were all over the age of forty and Ms. Hesterberg was the oldest of the group by only one year. Furthermore, two hundred and ninety-two of the three hundred and thirty-seven directors working for Tyson at the time of Ms. Hesterberg’s termination were also over the age forty, leading the Court to conclude that Tyson did not discriminate against Ms. Hesterberg due to her age.
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