Dear Dawg: I’ve applied for SEVEN different jobs and they haven’t even given me an interview! After 38 years in the business, I know age discrimination when I see it. What do you think???? TIRED IN TUPELO.

The Tupelo Public School District decided to “outsource” services to the Fillmore Center, an alternative school in May, 2010. The entire staff was let go, and told to apply for available positions elsewhere in the district.  Just one year later, the district dumped the outsourced company, and opened up all the jobs at Fillmore. The former director of the program was re-hired, but his assistant, Mary Alice Stennett, was not. Ms. Stennett, then 66 years old, with beaucoup administrative certifications and 38 years of experience (20 in Tupelo) inquired about a job at Fillmore, and formally applied for seven other positions that were available within the district.

She got two interviews, and no offers.  Each of the seven jobs went to someone much younger.  Ms. Stennett also noticed that none of the four oldest employees from Fillmore found fulltime work anywhere in the district.  She sued, alleging age discrimination.

The federal district court tossed the case out, granting summary judgment in favor of the district. The 5th Circuit reversed, and its ruling is a must read for HR directors.

The court held that Ms. Stennett had established a “prima facie” case, and supplemented that with sufficient evidence to cast serious doubt on the district’s claim that age had nothing to do with it.  The “prima facie” part of this is not too hard to establish.  Ms. Stennett had to show that 1) she was rejected for a job that she applied for; 2) she was qualified for the job; 3) she was over 40; and 4) they hired someone “substantially younger.”  Ms. Stennett made her “prima facie” case seven times, based on the seven open jobs she did not get.

On top of that, the court cited four factors that cast doubt on the district’s position. First, Ms. Stennett produced “comparatively exemplary qualifications” for the seven jobs. The court cited her three advanced degrees, four administrative and teaching certifications, 38 years of experience and 20 within Tupelo. The court concluded that “measured in terms of education and experience, Stennett was more qualified than each of the successful younger applicants, except one.”

Second, the court noted with emphasis the district’s refusal to even interview Ms. Stennett for five of the seven jobs.  Given her experience and credentials, this did not appear to make sense.

Third, the court observed that the district explained its decisions based on criteria that was not listed in the job postings. For example, one principal noted that she favored another applicant over Ms. Stennett because of the applicant’s background in STEM. The job posting said nothing about that.

Fourth, the court noted that Ms. Stennett was just one of four old fogeys at Fillmore who did not land another fulltime job.

Ms. Stennett has not won her lawsuit. But her victory at the 5th Circuit, reversing the lower court’s decision in favor of the district, certainly moves her in the right direction, jacks up the cost of an out of court settlement.

For people involved in the hiring process, this is a great case study. The case is Stennett v. Tupelo Public School District, decided by the 5th Circuit on July 30, 2015.  You can find it at 2015 WL 4569205.