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Von Kaenel v. Armstrong Teasdale, LLP

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

December 3, 2019

Joseph S. Von Kaenel Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
Armstrong Teasdale, LLP Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: September 24, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, BEAM and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

          ERICKSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         The law firm of Armstrong Teasdale, LLP ("Armstrong Teasdale" or "the firm") has a provision in its partnership agreement that requires mandatory retirement at age 70. Joseph S. von Kaenel ("von Kaenel"), an equity partner at the firm, filed this action alleging the firm's mandatory requirement policy is in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. The district court[1] granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of Armstrong Teasdale. We affirm.

         I. Background

         Armstrong Teasdale employed von Kaenel as an attorney from June 1, 1972, through December 31, 2014. He became a partner on January 1, 1978, and at the time of his retirement was an equity partner.[2] As an equity partner, von Kaenel had the right to vote on changes to the partnership agreement. According to testimony von Kaenel provided in state court proceedings related to a discrimination claim he sought to pursue under the Missouri Human Rights Act ("MHRA"), his pay was based on a "complicated calculation pursuant to the partnership agreement." After becoming a partner in the firm, von Kaenel's compensation was reported on a Schedule K-1 for tax purposes, rather than on a Form W-2. Premiums for health insurance and 401k contributions were deducted from partner distributions. Although the firm assigned a committee to set and review attorneys' hourly rates, the one time that von Kaenel requested that he be allowed to reduce his hourly rate for a particular client, his request was approved. While not given unfettered discretion to set his hourly rate, von Kaenel was responsible for the work performed on behalf of his clients and his substantive work was not reviewed by the practice group leader. As an equity partner, von Kaenel had the right to vote on accepting new partners into the partnership. His employment could be terminated only by vote of the other partners or by operation of the mandatory retirement policy.

          One of the provisions in the partnership agreement required equity partners to leave the firm at the end of the calendar year in which the equity partner turned 70 years of age, unless that managing partner allowed an exception. Another provision entitled an equity partner to severance benefits for two years after retirement, so long as the partner did not engage in the private practice of law.

         In November 2014, von Kaenel reached 70 years of age. He has alleged that but for the firm's mandatory retirement policy, he would have retired at or around age 75 and would have stopped practicing law at that time. Because von Kaenel continued to practice law after leaving Armstrong Teasdale, under the partnership agreement, von Kaenel was ineligible to receive the two year's of severance benefits that he would have been entitled to if he had not engaged in the private practice of law.

         Believing that the firm's mandatory retirement policy was discriminatory, on December 11, 2014, von Kaenel filed a charge of age discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights ("MCHR"). The MCHR issued a notice of termination of proceedings based on its finding that von Kaenel was 70 years old and, therefore, fell outside the protected age group. After the termination notice, von Kaenel filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the Circuit Court for Cole County, Missouri, requesting that the court order the MCHR to issue a notice of the right to sue or, in the alternative, to direct the MCHR to reopen the case and complete a full investigation of his complaint. The Cole County court held an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether von Kaenel was an "employee" protected by the MHRA. The court determined that as an equity partner, von Kaenel was not a covered employee protected by the MHRA and dismissed his mandamus petition.

          On June 24, 2016, von Kaenel received a right to sue letter from the EEOC. He filed this action on September 1, 2016, alleging discriminatory termination in violation of the ADEA. The district court granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of Armstrong Teasdale, concluding (1) von Kaenel is collaterally estopped from relitigating the Cole County court's decision that he is not an "employee" covered by the MHRA, and (2) because, like the MHRA, the ADEA only applies to employees, von Kaenel's ADEA claim necessarily fails.

         On appeal, von Kaenel raises two issues: (1) collateral estoppel is inapplicable because the state court's decision was based upon three alternative findings and the finding that von Kaenel was not an employee covered under the MHRA was not essential to the court's decision, and (2) a different result is warranted because Missouri does not define the term "employee" under the MHRA in the same way as the federal courts define that term under the ADEA.

         II. Discussion

         We review a district court's grant of judgment on the pleadings de novo. Clemons v. Crawford, 585 F.3d 1119, 1124 (8th Cir. 2009). The movant bears the burden of "clearly establish[ing] that there are no material issues of fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Porous Media Corp. v. Pall Corp., 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999). At this stage in the proceedings, we view all facts pled by von Kaenel as true and grant him all reasonable ...


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