In Age Discrimination Case, Plaintiff Must Show Qualifications Superior To Chosen Candidate

When well qualified individuals compete for a job and one of them is over 40, an age discrimination clam may be lurking in the background if the older candidate is passed over.  But the mere fact that the plaintiff can make out a prima facie case – i.e., that he/she was over 40 and a younger person was hired.-- that alone does not carry the day, particularly if the employer responds by saying it hired a person who it felt was better qualified. The burden then shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the employer’s explanation is in reality a “pretext” to cover up illegal discrimination. The burden is always on the employee (or candidate for employment) to prove that illegal animus based on race, gender, disability, religion or (as in this case) age, actually was the motivating factor.

In such cases, the court inevitably turns to the relative qualifications of the candidates to see if the employer’s non-discriminatory reason (“we selected a better candidate for the job”) is valid.  In Reeves v. MV Transportation, Inc., the California Court of Appeal confronted exactly this problem when the plaintiff, David Reeves (age 56), complained that the defendant transportation company discriminated against him because of his age when it hired a younger person for an in-house attorney position. 

The court’s opinion is instructive and offers a good guidepost for analyzing “comparative candidate” cases.  The court relied on a variety of precedent when it said: 

“In cases involving a comparison of the plaintiff‟s qualifications and those of the successful candidate, we must assume that a reasonable juror who might disagree with the employer‟s decision, but would find the question close, would not usually infer discrimination on the basis of a comparison of qualifications alone. In a close case, a reasonable juror would usually assume that the employer is more capable of assessing the significance of small differences in the qualifications of the candidates, or that the employer simply made a judgment call. . . But this does not mean that a reasonable juror would in every case defer to the employer’s assessment. If that were so, no job discrimination case could ever go to trial. If a fact finder can conclude that a reasonable employer would have found the plaintiff to be significantly better qualified for the job, but this employer did not, the fact finder can legitimately infer that the employer consciously selected a less-qualified candidate—something that employers do not usually do, unless some other strong consideration, such as discrimination, enters into the picture. . . . While not all cases hold that the disparity in candidates qualifications must be so apparent as to jump off the page and slap us in the face to support a finding of pretext,. . . the precedents do consistently require that the disparity be substantial to support an inference of discrimination.” (Citations omitted.)

The employer had won summary judgment defeating Mr. Reeves’s claim and that ruling was upheld on appeal when the court found there were ample reasons for the company to select the other (younger) candidate.

Individual age discrimination cases, where there is no anecdotal evidence of a discriminatory climate in the workplace, can be hard to prove with out a “substantial disparity” in qualifications between the chosen candidate and an older candidate who was rejected.

A complete copy of the court’s opinion is attached for your convenience.
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