Retire/rehire and age discrimination; What did the 5th Circuit say?

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Ever since it has become common for retired teachers to return to work the issue of age discrimination has hung in the air. If a district seems to disfavor retirees, is it engaging in age discrimination? After all, the retire/rehire crowd is all up there in years. So let us consider the case presented by Esther Watson.

You know that Ms. Watson is eligible for Senior Discounts from the court’s opening line: “For approximately half a century Esther Watson worked in education.” She was first hired as a teacher in Louisiana in 1973. Do the math. Ms. Watson is not just a member of AARP. She’s eligible for Medicare.

When the district decided to hire a younger white man for the principal’s job at Winnsboro Elementary, Ms. Watson, an African-American woman, filed suit alleging age and racial discrimination. This meant that the district had to explain why it passed over an applicant with superior credentials. The district cited “anticipated length of service.” In other words, they expected that the younger applicant was more likely to stay with the district longer.

Hmmm. Because Ms. Watson was already (how shall I put this delicately)….old? No. The district did not say a word about her age. Instead, the explanation was that 1) she did not live in the district; and 2) she had returned to work after retiring. Ms. Watson alleged that this was a thin smokescreen to disguise the bias against older workers. However, the court sidestepped the issue.

Dadgummit. I hate it when that happens. We lawyers like to get our questions answered so we can give you legal advice based on solid caselaw precedent. But the courts have a general rule of not deciding an issue unless they have to. In the case of Watson v. School Board of Franklin Parish the court concluded that it could avoid the age discrimination issue because there were other decisive factors: racial discrimination.

The lower court had summarily dismissed the case, but the 5th Circuit reversed that decision. The Circuit Court concluded that Ms. Watson was the “clearly better qualified” candidate for the job. The board offered the job to a young man with eight years of teaching experience and zero time as an administrator. Compare that with Ms. Watson who had taught for over 20 years, served as an assistant principal for almost ten, a principal for seven, and held every certification an educator could have, including as superintendent. On top of that, her interview score was slightly better than the other guy’s.

So the court sent the case back for further action. The court noted that a jury very well could—not necessarily will, but could—find that “no reasonable person could have selected McHand [the younger man] over her in the absence of racial discrimination.”

It’s Watson v. School Board of Franklin Parish decided by the 5th Circuit on February 16, 2023. It’s cited at 2023 WL 2054308.


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