A south Texas school district secretary attempted to file an age discrimination claim earlier this summer, claiming that she was fired due to her age. However, the replacement employee was actually older by four years than the secretary herself. The secretary was 48-years-old at the time of her firing.
Texas law had not yet established whether an age discrimination case should be thrown out on the basis that a replacement employee is older than the employee who was terminated. Other jurisdictions have varied in their treatment of such cases.
The Texas Supreme Court has defined the elements necessary to show a prima facie claim for age discrimination. Namely, the plaintiff must show that he or she was:
- Part of the protected class (in this case, older employees)
- Qualified for his or her employment position
- Terminated by the employer; and
- Replaced by someone younger
If the plaintiff can initially show that he or she meets all of the criteria, then there is a presumption that discrimination occurred - establishing the "prima facie" case - that must be refuted by the employer.
The Texas Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, made it clear that if the replacement employee is older, that presumption evaporates. An employee who has actual evidence of discrimination can recover even if his or her replacement was older; the ruling only prevents a presumption of discrimination, meaning the plaintiff does not have a "prima facie" case. However, if the plaintiff is unable to prove a prima facie case, it will not survive a motion for summary judgment, meaning the case will be thrown out of court before discovery occurs.
This means the decision generally limits an employee's ability to recover, absent some "smoking gun" type of evidence, such as an email proving age discrimination. Evidence such as a smoking-gun email is usually found during discovery. Essentially, this decision makes it extremely difficult for a government employee to recover if he or she is replaced by an employee of the same protected class.
In his dissent, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote that "the Court has given governmental entities a winning blueprint: First, hire a worker of the same protected class. Second, when litigation ensues, tell the court that, because a prima facie case is hopeless, it has no power to proceed."
Engaged in an Employment Dispute?
The Texas Supreme Court decision reduces the chance that employers who fire workers of a protected class and subsequently fill the position with someone else from that same protected class will face lengthy litigation. However, employment matters are still a complex and nuanced area of the law; employers concerned with potential or existing discrimination claims should immediately consult with a skilled employment law attorney to discuss its legal options.