By Dennis Seid
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has turned down the appeal of former Tupelo Regional Airport Executive Director Terry Anderson, whose age discrimination lawsuit was dismissed last fall.
Anderson, who was 64 when he was fired by the Tupelo Regional Airport Authority in December 2009, sued the board in early 2011, claiming he was fired because of his age and that the authority violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
But Chief U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills last September dismissed Anderson’s lawsuit. Mills wrote that the court “sees no valid argument whatsoever that age was a cause of his termination.”
Anderson appealed Mills’ dismissal, but the 5th Circuit said the district court “did not err in its summary judgment.”
The airport authority said it fired Anderson because it had lost confidence in his ability to lead the airport.
In 2004, when the TRAA board began to consider extending the runway, Anderson gave interviews and spoke with reporters at the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal about the project, chiefly in its support, although some board members had reservations.
In later conversations in 2009, Anderson questioned the board’s decisions and later claimed he was not the source for an article about the disagreements.
The board also claimed that Anderson was dishonest when he said he did not know who provided telephone service to the airport. Board members also believed that Anderson’s claim that he was not represented by legal counsel was dishonest because the board’s attorney had earlier received a letter from an attorney who referred to Anderson as his client.
Authority members questioned Anderson’s truthfulness and loyalty, which the court said were difficult to reconcile with Anderson’s emails to a board member and to the Daily Journal.
The appeals court said Anderson “sufficiently established” a case of age discrimination, noting that he was qualified to hold his former position and was replaced by a younger person. However, the court said the airport authority provided a “legitimate nondiscriminatory reason” for his firing.
Said the appeals court, “Whether Anderson truly believed he was being honest with the board in answering their questions is not the proper inquiry. Our inquiry focuses on whether TRAA’s stated reasons for terminating Anderson were not true. The record makes clear that board members had reason to believe that Anderson provided false or misleading responses to its questions. Anderson has failed to provide evidence that the board’s beliefs were unwarranted, unfounded or contrived.
“Accordingly, Anderson’s alleged dishonesty – which resulted in the board’s loss of confidence in his ability to do his job – constitutes a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for his termination which he has failed to rebut. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Anderson, we conclude that there is no genuine issue of material fact with respect to whether TRAA terminated Anderson because of his age.”