“Anticipated Length of Service” May Be a Risky Selection Factor
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the employee’s overwhelming qualifications supported her race discrimination claim and undercut the school district’s asserted primary reason for selecting another candidate: that the employee would not remain in the principalship position for long.
In Watson v. School Board of Franklin Parish, the African American female employee had 20 years of experience as a teacher, 7 years as a school principal, and an additional 7 years as a supervisor. She also had multiple certifications, including to serve as a superintendent and principal, as well as a Master of Education degree. She retired for a month before returning to serve as an assistant principal for the next nine or so years. When the principal at her school resigned, she applied for the position. However, a white male with 8 years of teaching experience, a couple of certifications, and no administrative experience was selected. According to the school board, it considered a variety of factors, including educational credentials, certifications, interview scores, work history, and “most importantly, anticipated length of service” in making the decision. As to this last factor, the School Board noted that the employee was a retiree who returned to work and that she did not live in the parish for the school.
Although the federal trial court sided with the school board’s explanation, the Fifth Circuit disagreed. As it noted, a plaintiff employee may show that an employer’s stated reason for the challenged employment decision is a pretext for discrimination by presenting evidence that she was “clearly better qualified (as opposed to merely better or as qualified)” than the selected employee. In this case, the Fifth Circuit found that the plaintiff met this standard – she had significantly more relevant work experience (particularly in the parish school in question), as well as significantly more educational certifications, and had scored higher on the interview, than the selected employee. Thus, the Fifth Circuit determined that a jury could find that no reasonable person could have selected the other employee over the plaintiff in the absence of racial discrimination.
This case does not mean that anticipated length of service is never an appropriate factor. But employers must be careful not to make assumptions about an employee’s future work plans and circumstances. And they should not rely on speculative assumptions over documented, objective qualifications in making decisions.