We all know the drill. You interview multiple employees/applicants for a position, and one just stands out. Your gut tells you he’s the right guy for the position, but on paper, he’s less qualified than the other candidates. Oh, and the others are members of a protected class. How can you avoid landing in hot water if you hire Mr. Right Guy? A Mississippi school district recently learned this lesson the hard way.
Cora Cunningham began working for the East Tallahatchie School District (ETSD) as an inclusion teacher in the fall of 2017. She had more than 23 years of experience in the education field, including 3 years as an assistant principal in other school districts. She also had an administrator’s license and a Doctor of Education degree in educational leadership.
In July 2018, Cunningham applied for the assistant principal position at Charleston High School. The school district’s superintendent, Darron Edwards, delegated Mark Beechem, principal at the high school, to interview applicants for the position. Beechem, who had previously worked with Cunningham in the same school and had an opportunity to observe her, interviewed some of the applicants but chose not to meet with Cunningham because of her performance in a past interview.
Beechem selected Ranald Johnson for the position because “he brought some things to the table that would be beneficial” to the high school and “would be a good fit for the system” the principal was putting in place. Johnson held a specialist’s degree in educational leadership, which is “above a master’s degree” but short of a Ph.D.
At the time Johnson was selected for the assistant principal position, he was approximately 39 years old, and Cunningham was 57 years old.
Cunningham filed a lawsuit against the ETSD, asserting the decision to select Johnson rather than her was in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The ETSD filed a request for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the claim without a trial, arguing she couldn’t prove her age was the “but-for” cause of her being denied the promotion.
To prove she wasn’t promoted because of her age, Cunningham had to show (1) she belongs to the protected class, (2) she applied to and was qualified for a position for which applicants were being sought, (3) she was rejected, and (4) another applicant not belonging to the protected class was hired. The ETSD didn’t dispute Cunningham could make that showing. Thus, the burden shifted to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision.
In an attempt to meet its burden, the ETSD claimed the decision not to promote Cunningham was based on Beechem’s belief Johnson would be a better fit. Also, based on the principal’s previous interactions with her, he believed she lacked the desired capabilities for the job.
The court acknowledged that “justifying an adverse employment decision by offering a content-less and nonspecific statement, such as that a candidate is not ‘sufficiently suited’ for the position, is not specific enough to meet a defendant employer’s burden of production.” An employer’s “subjective reason for not selecting an applicant may serve as a legitimate reason, but the employer must ‘articulate a clear and reasonably specific basis for its subjective assessment.’”
Although Beechem’s subjective beliefs about Cunningham’s fitness for the position may have been true, the court determined the ETSD didn’t articulate a nondiscriminatory reason with sufficient clarity to afford the candidate a realistic opportunity to show the reason was pretextual (or a cover-up for discrimination).
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi thus declined to grant summary judgment in the school district’s favor. Cunningham v. East Tallahatchie School District, 2020 WL 4495472 (N.D. Miss., Aug. 4, 2020).
When deciding between two or more candidates, it’s important to be able to articulate specific nondiscriminatory reasons for the selection you make. As much as possible, you should steer clear of vague, subjective reasons and instead point to concrete, objective bases for the decisions. And of course, contemporaneous preparation of documentation outlining your reasoning is a best practice. As we have said time and time again, document, document, document!