That time a federal appellate court schooled a teacher on at-will employment


A schoolteacher who got promoted to Assistant Head of School, only to have her position eliminated, felt that the school should have explored other alternatives. She believed this demonstrated a pretext for age discrimination.

She was wrong.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits private employers from firing an employee who is at least 40 years of age “because of” the employee’s age. Employees who assert age discrimination claims must establish that their age was a “but-for” cause of the employer’s adverse decision.

How does one prove an age discrimination claim? Absent direct evidence of age discrimination (e.g., “I’m firing your old ass because you’re too old”), courts evaluate these cases under a burden-shifting framework, like they would any other discrimination claim. First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of age discrimination. Then, the burden shifts to the employer to “articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged employment action.” Finally, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the employer’s proffered reason is a pretext for discrimination.

How does a plaintiff establish pretext? They must show that the employer’s reason was false and that discrimination was the real reason.

But here’s the thing, the real reason for an adverse employment action doesn’t have to be the best one. In other words, the employee cannot succeed by simply quarreling with the wisdom of the employer’s employment action.

In this case, the new head of school made it her “top priority” to “increase the asset-to-liability ratio for the school to meet accrediting standards.” In other words, she needed to make some cuts. And, among those cuts, she notified the plaintiff that the school would not renew her contract for the following school year. The plaintiff was then 56 years old.

The plaintiff, who disagreed with the decision, said there were other steps the defendant could have taken to save money. But is that age discrimination?

No, reasoned the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, that’s at-will employment.

That other — and maybe even better — ways might have existed to resolve the School’s financial situation does not demonstrate pretext. We have said that an “employer may fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous facts, or for no reason at all, as long as its action is not for a discriminatory reason.”

Courts are not in the business of second-guessing the business judgment of employers. However, employers can find themselves in hot water when weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the proffered explanation taint adverse employment actions. So when you terminate someone’s employment, ensure that decision-makers agree on why, document the decision, and communicate it to the employee respectfully.

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