Employment Law Daily Denied a dozen promotions, former teacher of the year can’t show pretext
Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Denied a dozen promotions, former teacher of the year can’t show pretext

By Joy P. Waltemath, J.D. Although an African-American female teacher unsuccessfully applied for at least a dozen different positions between 2005 and 2013 (her 25th through 33rd years as a teacher), during which time she was named "Teacher of the Year," her age, race, and sex discrimination claims failed. The Seventh Circuit agreed that her Title VII claims relating to positions for which she applied in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, as well as her Section 1981 claims for positions she sought in 2005 and 2006, were time-barred. As to her remaining failure-to-promote claims under both laws, she either lacked evidence to establish a prima facie case or failed to raise an issue with respect to pretext, because she could not show that she was clearly better qualified than the persons chosen (Riley v. Elkhart Community Schools, July 22, 2016, Bauer, W.). Time-barred. Because she filed her EEOC complaint in 2011, any Title VII or ADEA violation related to an incident occurring before mid-2010 (300 days before the filing), and any Section 1981 violation related to an incident occurring before mid-2007 (four years before the filing) was time-barred. Although the Seventh Circuit found several Sec. 1981 failure-to-promote claims (from 2007, 2008, and 2009) not time-barred, in contrast to the district court, that fact did not change the overall result that all the teacher’s claims failed. Accordingly, the appeals court considered four Sec. 1981 claims and three Title VII claims, all for failure to promote to assistant principal, academic dean, or the "Blazer Connection coordinator position," which was an after-school tutoring program. It knocked down her claims one by one. No prima facie case. First, the teacher lacked a prima facie case for her Sec. 1981 claim assistant principal position for which she applied in 2009 because the school hired an African-American woman for that position, which meant she could not show the school promoted someone outside of her protected class. She could not establish a prima facie case regarding the 2010 academic dean positions because she could not prove she ever applied for them, and thus the school could not have rejected her. She similarly failed to establish a prima facie case regarding the Blazer Connection coordinator position, because in the court’s view, being rejected for this position was not a sufficiently adverse employment action. Failure-to-promote claims are actionable only if not being "promoted" is a "materially adverse" employment action, but the teacher presented no evidence of how the Blazer Connection position was anything more than a lateral move—that it offered a significant pay raise, increased responsibilities, or better title. No pretext. Even when the teacher established a prima facie case, she lacked sufficient evidence of pretext. That was the case in the two 2012 assistant principal positions, where she established a prima facie case of age discrimination because the school hired two people outside of her protected age group—both of whom were under age 40—and who lacked her teaching experience. Both individuals were considered more qualified based on the seven factors considered by the screening committee, the least important of which was length of service in the school system. There was testimony by a screening committee member that the others "were the best at answering interview questions, specifically the questions relating to particular ways to improve the respective school to which the applicant would be assigned." In contrast, the teacher "did not communicate as effectively in her interview; she tended to criticize without providing potential solutions." And teaching experience was not dispositive, since the position was an administrative one, and all three had comparable administrative experience and training. Not "clearly better qualified." So although the teacher had evidence of her many years of teaching experience, her administrator’s license, past performance, and her Teacher of the Year award, those qualifications would serve as evidence of pretext only if the differences between her and the successful applicants were "so favorable" that there could be no dispute among reasonable persons of impartial judgment that she "was clearly better qualified for the position at issue." But she had not. She showed only that she had more teaching experience, but as to administrative experience and training, all three "were on the same plane for the assistant principal position." She had no evidence to contradict that of the screening committee member as to her interview performance. In short, because she had no evidence that she was clearly better qualified than either of the two younger individuals who were hired, her age discrimination claim failed as a matter of law. Seniority not enough. This doomed her Sec. 1981 claims relating to her 2007, 2008, and 2009 applications to assistant principal positions where the school hired white individuals instead of her. Her arguments for these positions were essentially that she was better qualified because she had more teaching experience and had longer tenure. Again, however, this was not sufficient evidence that she was clearly better qualified for the positions. Her greater teaching experience did not carry particular weight, since again the position was administrative, and her administrative experience and training was comparable to that of the three candidates whom the school eventually hired. And her greater seniority was not enough to meet her burden for pretext.

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