On August 15, 2022, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings apply to New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania employers) upheld the District of New Jersey’s dismissal of an employee’s age discrimination claims, finding she was unable to show her employer’s nondiscriminatory reasons for not hiring her were “so plainly wrong that it cannot have been [its] real reason.” Because she was unable to provide compelling evidence to support her claim, the Third Circuit wouldn’t overturn the district court’s decision.
Anne Marie Cronin worked for Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. as a human resources business partner (HRBP) from 2004 until August 2017. The company began reorganizing its HR department in 2015, when it adopted Workday as its new HR software platform. This reorganization led to Cronin’s dismissal from the company in 2017.
Because Booz Allen anticipated Workday would “enable the business units to perform their own HR transactions instead of going through an HRBP,” it sought to transition its HRBPs to a “more strategic and proactive role of an adviser and consultant regarding future business needs.” It titled those roles human resources talent consultants (HRTCs).
While Booz Allen told its then-current HRBPs, including Cronin, that they would have the first opportunities to apply for the new HRTC positions, it created fewer new positions. That meant not every HRBP would retain a role, and they would each have to go through an application process to be considered.
In assessing the applicants, Booz Allen reviewed their resumes, annual performance reviews for 2016, and manager feedback, which included a “numerical ranking on a one-to-three scale.” Each applicant was also asked the same five questions and underwent an interview with a three-person hiring committee.
Cronin was not selected for an HRTC role, which she blamed on her age (over 40 years old). According to Booz Allen’s statistics, however, 34 people applied for an HRTC role, and 23 of the 34 applicants were over the age of 40. Out of those 23, 11 were given the HRTC role. In contrast, nine of the remaining 11 applicants under the age of 40 were retained as HRTCs. There were 20 HRTC roles available, and over half of them were filled by individuals over the age of 40. Nonetheless, Cronin filed suit in state court, and the company had the case moved to federal court.
District Court’s Decision
The company stated Cronin wasn’t selected for the HRTC role because she was “less qualified for the new role than the candidates who were selected as HRTCs.” The district court ruled that she was unable to show the company’s reasoning was pretext (an excuse) for the company’s real motive for not hiring her (her age).
Despite Cronin’s attempts to show otherwise, the district court found she had “not met her burden of proof” and dismissed her claims.
Third Circuit’s Decision
The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, agreeing that Cronin couldn’t show pretext. Cronin cited four reasons why Booz Allen’s reasoning was an excuse to cover up age discrimination in the hiring process:
- She had a history of positive performance reviews, and the company failed to consider anything older than 2016;
- Booz Allen retained younger, less qualified employees;
- It hired younger employees in 2014 and 2015 in anticipation of retaining them during the reorganization; and
- A decision maker allegedly said the company was looking for “fresh new blood” to fill the HRTC roles.
The Third Circuit found none of Cronin’s reasons compelling.
In an important affirmation of a company’s right to set its own employment criteria, the Third Circuit found no issue with Booz Allen’s decision to rely only on 2016 performance reviews. The court said it would “not second guess the method an employer uses to evaluate its employees” absent a showing that “the evaluating criteria . . . lacks any relationship at all to the performance of the employee being evaluated.” Here, that clearly wasn’t the case, and, importantly, the method was applied equally throughout the hiring process.
The court also found Cronin’s assertion that younger, less qualified individuals were chosen for the HRTC roles unpersuasive. It said that “it is undisputed that, unlike Cronin, some candidates hired as HRTCs didn’t possess certain qualifications included in the job description related to education and HR experience.” This was true, however, for applicants both over and under 40 years old. According to the court, that “undermin[ed] any suggestion that overlooking these criteria for under-40 candidates amounted to pretext.”
Finally, the court found there was “nothing facially troubling about the age breakdown” of the individuals hired in 2014 and 2015 and that the phrase “‘new blood’ or equivalent phrases, standing alone [do not] evince age discrimination.” Finding no evidence of pretext, the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Cronin’s claims. Cronin v. Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., et al.
The Third Circuit’s decision is an encouraging message to employers that spending the time and energy to come up with an unbiased reorganization/hiring program will be rewarded. Booz Allen’s equal application of clear, objective criteria resulted in a balanced reorganization of its HR department with both younger and older employees filling the new roles. Cronin’s inability to draw an inference of discrimination from those statistics proves once again that prevention is better than cure.
For more information regarding this decision and for guidance and strategies on how to plan and implement department reorganizations/hiring programs, please contact John C. Petrella, chair of Genova Burns LLC’s employment law and litigation group, at email@example.com or Dina M. Mastellone, partner and chair of the firm’s human resources, counseling, and compliance group, at firstname.lastname@example.org.