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School Prevailed On Age Discrimination Claim Where Decision To Terminate Employee Was Based On Legitimate Business Need
Julie Regina began working at the Weiss Gifted and Talented School in 2004. During her time at the School, she worked in a variety of roles and was promoted to Assistant Head of School in 2013.
The Weiss Gifted and Talented School is a private, non-profit school in Florida accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools (FCIS). As part of FCIS’s routine reaccreditation process, FCIS performed a comprehensive review and evaluation of the School. Following this evaluation, FCIS issued a report noting concerns about the School’s asset-to-liability ratio (i.e., how much debt the school owned compared to its assets), as the School’s ratio fell below the FCIS standards. The report advised the School that it must bring up the ratio to be in compliance with the FCIS standard.
Shortly after the report was issued, the School’s then-Head of School announced her resignation. A new Head of School was hired, and in a sworn declaration, the new Head of School said her top priority was to increase the asset-to-liability ratio for the School to meet accrediting standards. The new Head of the School had the authority to make hiring and firing decisions, and shortly after taking over, she made several staffing changes. Among these changes was the decision not to renew Regina’s contract for the following school year. Regina was 56 years old at the time.
Regina filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After receiving a right-to-sue notice from the EEOC, Regina sued the School. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the School and Regina appealed.
Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), private employers are prohibited from firing an employee who is at least 40 years of age because of the employee’s age. To prevail on a claim under the ADEA, an employee must prove that age was the cause of the employer’s adverse action, and the employee has the initial burden of establishing a case of age discrimination. Once the employee establishes the case, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action. If the employer does so, the employee must show that the reason was a pretext for discrimination, by showing the reason was false and that discrimination was the real reason.
The Court of Appeal assumed that Regina established a case of age discrimination. The Court of Appeal then concluded that the School did present a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Regina’s employment—to improve the School’s financial position. The new Head of the School said her chief goal was to bring the School’s asset-to-liability ratio into compliance with FCIS standards, and she made adjustments to the School’s staff to ensure each employee was fully scheduled. She also determined what job responsibilities she could take on and what positions could be eliminated. The Court of Appeal found that the School’s budgetary concerns and compliance issues were reasons to motivate a reasonable employer to make the decision to eliminate Regina’s position.
The Court of Appeal found that Regina did not rebut the School’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. Regina did not dispute that the School was experiencing financial difficulty and did not dispute that the School needed to reduce its asset-to-liability ratio. Regina argued that there were alternative ways to reduce the School’s expenditures without terminating her employment and that the new Head of the School’s decisions were not successful in reducing the ratio. The Court of Appeal said that these decisions do not demonstrate pretext, and the Court will not second-guess the business judgment of employers. The Court of Appeal highlighted that the School can make hiring and firing decisions for any host of reasons, good or bad, so long as the action is not for a discriminatory reason. Regina provided no evidence that there was a discriminatory motivation for removing her position and provided no evidence that her age was the real reason she was fired. The Court of Appeal granted summary judgment for the School.
Regina v. Weiss Gifted and Talented School, Inc. (11th Cir. 2023) 2023 WL 116652.
This case is from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and is therefore not binding in California. However, it does show how one federal appellate court interpreted the ADEA regarding a private school’s decision to terminate a long-time administrator. When taking any action to separate employment, it is important that a school is able to demonstrate legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons for its decision.