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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
As part of our commitment to assist and educate employees in fighting back against the abusive employment practices of employers, we offer a broad range of information about employment law issues in our employment blog.

Employee Claims Age Discrimination When Younger, Less Qualified Candidate Selected For Promotion

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Having represented victims of age discrimination for more than two decades, our Marion County, Florida age discrimination victims’ lawyers know that older workers continue to face significant obstacles in their efforts to obtain promotion. In denying older employees promotion, employers often attempt to justify their employment decision by reliance on subjective reasons. For example, employers will claim that the person promoted was “more enthusiastic,” “a better fit,” or had better “interpersonal skills” that the rejected older worker.

Although employers may take subjective factors into account in their employment decisions, subjective reasons, as the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recognized in Carter v. Three Springs Residential Treatment, 132 F.3d 635 (11th Cir. 1998), provide a “ready mechanism for [age] discrimination.” Consequently, as explained by the U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in Hamilton v. Geithner, 666 F.3d 1344 (D.C. Cir. 2012), courts “have repeatedly expressed concern about the ease with which heavy reliance on subjective criteria may be used to ‘mask’ or ‘camouflage’ discrimination.”  In this article, our Ocala, Florida age discrimination victims’ lawyers explain how the decision in Cunningham v. East Tallahatchie School District, Case No. 4:19-cv-10 (N.D. Miss. Aug. 4, 2020) demonstrates that an employer’s reliance on subjective reasons may be insufficient to justify an employment decision and reflect a discriminatory motive.

Worker Claims Denied Promotion Because Of Age

In that case, Cora Cunningham (Cunningham) brought an age discrimination lawsuit against her employer, the East Tallahatchie School District (the School District), pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Under the ADEA, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of age in employment decisions, including promotion decisions. Cunningham claims that the School District violated the ADEA by failing to promote her because of her age.

In the fall of 2017, Cunningham began working for the School District as an inclusion teacher. Cunningham had over 23 years of experience in the education field, which included three years as an assistant principal in other school districts. In July 2018, Cunningham applied for the assistant principal position at Charleston High. The School District’s superintendent instructed the principal at the high school, Beechem, to conduct the interviews of applicants for the position.

Beechem interviewed between two to five applicants but choose not to interview Cunningham because of her performance in a past interview. Beechem had the discretion to choose which applicants to interview. Beechem selected a man named Johnson for the position because “he bought some things to the table that would be beneficial” to the high school and “would be a good fit for the system which [Beechem] was putting in place.” At the time Johnson was selected for the assistant principal position, Cunningham was 57 years old and Johnson was 39 years old.

Subjective Reasons Mask Discrimination

The School District filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Cunningham’s age discrimination claim. In doing so, the School District argued that the decision not to offer Cunningham the position was not related to her age. Instead, according to the School District, Cunningham was not selected for the position based on Beechem’s belief that Johnson would be a better fit and that, based on Beechem’s previous interactions with Cunningham, she lacked the desired capabilities for the position. Noting that the School Board was relying on subjective criteria to justify its employment decision, the trial court explained that the threshold issue raised by the School Board’s motion for dismissal was whether the School Board’s subjective reasons for selecting Johnson were sufficient to justify its employment decision.

In resolving the issue, the trial court observed that courts have determined that an “employer’s subjective opinion that a candidate was not sufficiently suited for the job did not necessarily qualify” as a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision “because the employer’s opinion may have in fact been based on a protected trait.” In other words, an employer’s subjective reason for the employment decision, such as the candidate was “not a good fit” or “lacked the desired capabilities” for the job, may reflect that the employer believed the candidate was “not a good fit” or “lacked the desired capabilities” because of his or her age. Thus, the trial court pointed out that an employer “must articulate in some detail a more specific reason that its own vague and conclusional feeling about the employee” in order to demonstrate that its subjective reason is not a manifestation of impermissible discrimination.

Selecting Less Qualified Candidate Shows Discrimination

In applying these principles, the trial court found that although Beechem’s “subjective beliefs about Cunningham’s fitness for the position may be true,” they were an insufficient justification for the decision to select Johnson over Cunningham because they were based on nothing more than Beechem’s vague and conclusory feelings. Because the School Board’s articulated reason for not selecting Cunningham was legally insufficient to justify the employment decision, the trial court denied the School Board’s motion for dismissal.

The trial court also determined that even if the School Board’s proffered reason for not selecting Cunningham was legally sufficient to justify the employment decision, Cunningham still had produced evidence reflecting that she was not promoted because of her age. In support of this conclusion, the trial court pointed out that the evidence showed that Cunningham was more qualified than Johnson for the position based on having more education, education-related training, and experience than Johnson. Selecting a less qualified candidate for the position, the trial court observed, was evidence that Cunningham’s age was the real reason that she was not selected for the position. Thus, the trial court also found that a reasonable jury conclude conclude that Cunningham was not promoted to the position because of her age in violation of the ADEA.

Consult With Ocala, FL Age Discrimination Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, our Marion County, Florida age discrimination victims’ attorneys been litigating age discrimination cases in Florida courts for more than twenty years. If you have experienced age discrimination at work or have questions about your rights as an older employee under the federal employment laws, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Ocala, Florida age discrimination victims’ lawyers. Our employment and labor law attorneys take age discrimination cases cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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