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Stennett v. Tupelo Public School District

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

October 1, 2013

MARY ALICE STENNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
TUPELO PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SHARION AYCOCK, District Judge.

Plaintiff filed this action alleging discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Defendant has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [44]. Upon due consideration of the motion, responses, rules, and authorities, the Court finds that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is well taken and shall be GRANTED.

Factual and Procedural Background

Mary Alice Stennett worked for the Tupelo Public School District (School District) from 1990 to May 2010. During that time, Stennett worked in various roles at the Bissell Discipline School, Tupelo High School, and the Fillmore Center. In late May 2010, Stennett and the other Fillmore Center employees were notified that their contracts would not be renewed because the School District had decided to outsource the operation of the Center to a private company in order to save money. Stennett was 63 years old at the time of her contract non-renewal.

Stennett went on to apply for multiple jobs with the School District, seven of which are the subject of this lawsuit.[1] She was only interviewed for two positions and the School District hired other candidates for each of the jobs for which she had applied. Stennett filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on August 29, 2011 and received notice of her right to sue by letter dated January 27, 2012. Stennett filed this action on April 16, 2012 alleging the School District willfully refused to rehire her because of her age. The School District has moved for summary judgment.

Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is warranted under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The rule "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

The party moving for summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The nonmoving party must then "go beyond the pleadings" and "designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, "but only when... both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts." Little v. Liquid Air Corp. , 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir.1994) (en banc). When such contradictory facts exist, the Court may "not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc. , 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). However, conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments have never constituted an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash. , 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); SEC v. Recile , 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1997); Little , 37 F.3d at 1075.

Analysis and Discussion

It is unlawful under the ADEA for an employer "to fail or refuse to hire... any individual... because of such individual's age." 29 U.S.C. ยง 623(a)(1). When bringing an ADEA claim, a plaintiff has the ultimate burden of persuasion to "prove by a preponderance of the evidence (which may be direct or circumstantial), that age was the but-for' cause of the challenged employer decision." Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc. , 557 U.S. 167, 177-78, 129 S.Ct. 2343, 174 L.Ed.2d 119 (2009).

Where, as here, a plaintiff relies only on circumstantial evidence to prove her claim, the Court utilizes the framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green , 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). This burden-shifting framework requires Plaintiff to first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Berquist v. Washington Mut. Bank , 500 F.3d 344, 349 (5th Cir. 2007). To demonstrate a prima facie case for age discrimination, Plaintiff must show "(1) [s]he belongs to a protected class; (2) [s]he applied for and was qualified for a position that was seeking applicants; (3) [s]he was rejected; and (4) following [her] rejection, another applicant not of the protected class was hired." Haas v. ADVO Sys., Inc. , 168 F.3d 732, 733 (5th Cir. 1999).

If Plaintiff can make out a prima facie case, the burden of production then "shifts to the employer to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision. If the employer articulates a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision, the plaintiff must then be afforded an opportunity to rebut the employer's purported explanation to show that the reason given is merely pretextual." Moss v. BMC Software, Inc. , 610 F.3d 917, 922 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal citations and quotations omitted). A plaintiff may show pretext "either through evidence of disparate treatment or by showing that the employer's proffered explanation is false or unworthy of credence.'" Jackson v. Cal-Western Packaging Corp. , 602 F.3d 374, 378-79 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Laxton v. Gap Inc. , 333 F.3d 572, 578 (5th Cir.2003)). In an action based upon a failure to hire, "[a] showing that the [plaintiff] was clearly better qualified' (as opposed to merely better or as qualified) than the employees who are selected [for the position] will be sufficient to prove that the employer's proffered reasons are pretextual." Moss , 610 F.3d at 922 (citing EEOC v. La. Office of Cmty. Servs. , 47 F.3d 1438, 1444 (5th Cir.1995) (internal quotations omitted)).

Defendant does not contest Plaintiff's ability to establish a prima facie case for discrimination with regard to the positions at issue in this case. Rather, Defendant asserts that Plaintiff was passed over because she was not as qualified as those individuals who were ultimately hired. Plaintiff in turn argues that she was clearly better qualified than the persons hired by Defendant. The issue before the Court then is whether Plaintiff has sufficiently established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendant's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not hiring her was pretextual.

Plaintiff argues that she was clearly better qualified than each of the candidates ultimately hired by Defendant. "Showing that two candidates are similarly qualified does not establish pretext.... " Price v. Fed. Exp. Corp. , 283 F.3d 715, 723 (5th Cir. 2002); see La. Office of Cmty. Servs. , 47 F.3d at 1445 (rejecting claim of non-promoted employee in age discrimination case when evidence indicated at best only that she was as qualified as the selected applicants). Indeed, the Fifth Circuit has held that "the bar is set high" for plaintiffs attempting to prove they were clearly better qualified because "differences in qualifications are generally not probative evidence of discrimination unless those disparities are of such weight and significance that no reasonable person, in the exercise of impartial judgment, could have chosen the candidate selected over the ...


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