4th Circuit rules lack of skills does not equate to age discrimination. In Palmer v. Liberty University, Liberty University commented that a 79-year-old professor would “have great difficulty with any changes” didn’t prove age discrimination.
Liberty University had directed the 30-year art professor to accomplish two goals to receive a promotion to full professor, the court explained. First, to increase the quality and quantity of her personal output — exhibitions, publications, and conference presentations, to name a few. Second, she needed to enhance her digital art and technology skills in order to teach digital art courses and incorporate technology into her existing art classes. The art professor received a promotion after completing the first goal at the age of 77.
Liberty reported increased demand for digital art courses and said it struggled to meet them. The professor was not qualified to teach those courses, and because of that, the dean decided not to renew her contract for the following school year.
Allowing the plaintiff another year to accomplish the second goal was suggested by the school’s provost, according to the 4th Circuit, but the dean rejected the suggestion, stating the professor would “have great difficulty with any changes.” Retirement was also discussed, but the pair decided to express her departure in that way only if she suggested it.
The art professor sued, alleging the nonrenewal was because of her age, violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
A federal district court dismissed her claim, saying the comments didn’t show direct discrimination and, even if they did reflect bias, she could not show that her age was the “but-for” cause of her nonrenewal — a standard that requires workers to prove that “but-for” their age, they wouldn’t have suffered the adverse employment action. Additionally, it said she had failed to meet Liberty’s legitimate expectations.
The professor appealed, but the 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court. The statements didn’t amount to direct evidence of discrimination; instead, the comments about retirement were merely internal discussions about how to handle the nonrenewal if she raised the possibility of retirement.
Additionally, the court said that she provided no evidence that the school believed she was resistant to change because of her age. “Liberty believed that [the professor] was resistant to change because of her demonstrated failure to develop digital skills after her supervisors repeatedly advised her to do so,” it concluded, quoting the lower court affirming its ruling.
The Employer Takeaway
Make sure your one-on-ones always focus on the skill set required to succeed in the position. Initial or existing skills get a person into a position, effective application of skills keeps a person employed in the position, and continued development of necessary skills is required, especially over considerable amounts of time.
If you are not discussing this openly, especially with tenured employees, you are doing them and your organization a disadvantage.
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