Texas’ highest court ruled that an employer can evade liability under state age discrimination laws if it replaces an aggrieved worker with an even older worker.
Gloria Garcia was employed by the Mission Consolidated Independent School District (MCISD) from 1976 to 2003, and then terminated at the age of 48. Her subsequent lawsuit argued that her termination was because of age discrimination, and to a larger unwritten plan to discriminate against older Hispanic female employees politically associated with opponents of the current MCISD administration. Ultimately, her position was filled by a worker who was age 51.
Garcia invoked her rights under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA), which closely tracks the language of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The school district’s argument was that its subsequent hiring of a worker older than Garcia absolutely protected it from Garcia’s claim of age bias.
An appeals court disagreed and ruled that once Garcia raised the issue of age discrimination, it was up to the school district to defend its actions. Hiring an older worker was evidence it could offer, but was not determinative. Thus, the appeals court reversed the dismissal.
The Texas Supreme Court restored the district’s judgment, ruling that where an older plaintiff is replaced by a still older worker, the plaintiff has no claim of age discrimination unless s/he can show “direct evidence” of intent to discriminate. In other words, the Texas Supreme Court set a very high bar, requiring clear evidence of age bias that is often impossible for workers to meet.
Attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation filed AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief with the Texas Supreme Court. The brief reviewed decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and multiple U.S. Courts of Appeals finding the hiring of other older workers does not automatically bar a finding of age discrimination. Instead, argued the brief, age discrimination is to be evaluated case-by-case, so while hiring an older worker might make out a valid defense, it does not preclude a plaintiff from proving her case. The brief also noted that ruling as the Texas Supreme Court did would be at odds with decisions in race and sex discrimination cases under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the statute on which federal and state age discrimination laws are based.
What’s at Stake
Age discrimination protections are particularly important in a time of economic difficulty, both because of the effect on the employee and the pressures on the employer to cut expenses wherever and however possible. Barring challenges solely because a worker was subsequently replaced by an older worker gives employers a “safe harbor” from lawsuits even where discrimination might have occurred, so long as they replace a terminated older worker with a still older worker.
Mission Consolidated Independent School District v. Garcia was decided by the Supreme Court of Texas.
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