- The "multiple, consistent reasons" the University of Delaware cited in replacing two female volleyball coaches were not pretext for age or sexual orientation discrimination, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (Kenny et al. v. University of Delaware, No. 19-3818 (3rd Cir., Aug. 19, 2020)).
- The coaches, who were married to each other, were in their fifties when their employment with the university ended, according to the court's opinion. The women sued, alleging they were fired because of their age and sexual orientation, in violation of state and federal law.
- The appeals court affirmed a lower court's ruling for the employer. "We agree that there were multiple non-discriminatory reasons for firing Kenny and Gregory as outlined by the District Court," it wrote. The school found the coaches' behavior toward the players to be "unprofessional." Specifically, the school dismissed the coaches over the way they interacted with players during games and practices: A complaint made by a player's parent and a 2015 player survey reported "verbal and mental abuse," according to the district court's opinion.
When an employer has a well-documented, non-discriminatory reason for an adverse employment action, it may be in a good position to prevail over a discrimination claim in court. For example, the 5th Circuit recently ruled that a Mississippi deputy clerk was fired because of a budget shortfall, not bias.
Generally, a plaintiff also must show that the defendant's offered reasoning involved "such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions" that a reasonable factfinder could find the offered rationale unworthy of belief, as the 3rd Circuit noted. Or, as the 6th Circuit said earlier this year, that an employer's reason for firing the worker wasn't "fishy."
It's worth noting that federal law is now understood to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity because of a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as providing such protections.