- A municipal employer's stated reason for terminating one of its four deputy clerks — a budget shortfall — was not a pretext for age or race discrimination (Harville v. City of Houston, Mississippi, No. 18-60117 (5th Cir. August 16, 2019)).
- Mary Harville, who is white, alleged race and age discrimination, as well as retaliation, after she was fired. Three other deputy clerks were retained; two of them are black and one of them is white.
- The district court ruled for the employer on summary judgment, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The city had offered sufficient evidence of its nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Harville — that it was facing a budget shortfall and chose to implement a city-wide "reduction in force." Harville was chosen for termination over the other three deputy clerks because her duties were perceived to be seasonal, court documents said. The 5th Circuit also noted that the temporal proximity between Harville's initial U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge and the city's decision to hire another candidate for a job for which Harville also applied was 12 months — a time period not sufficient to establish a prima facie case of retaliation.
Employers can fire workers or decline to hire a candidate when they have a reason that doesn't involve a legally protected characteristic such as race, age or gender.
For example, a school did not engage in age discrimination when it reassigned a 59-year-old teacher's classes and tasked her with making photocopies. This was because her teaching responsibilities were assigned to several teachers, most of whom were older than she was, court documents showed. Similarly, an unsuccessful candidate for a project management position was unable to show that an employer's decision to reject his job application was due to age bias or national origin bias; other candidates were more qualified and gave better interviews.
Timing alone can be sufficient to establish a prima facie case of retaliation, according to experts. A federal district court in Maine recently cited six months as a benchmark, though there is no hard-and-fast rule about how close in time one action must occur to another in order for it to be suggestive of bias. But, in general, the closer in time, the worse it tends to look for employers.
An employee fired two weeks after making a workers' compensation claim was recently allowed to proceed with his retaliation claim. In allowing his case to go forward, the 5th Circuit pointed out the "stark temporal proximity" of the workers' comp claim and the termination.