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Comments About “21st Century Skills” May Be Construed As Evidence Of Age Bias

Published by on November 15, 2010

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment in an age discrimination case based on comments by the decision maker about employees needing “21st Century Skills.”  The case is set for trial later this month.  More after the break. Marlow was hired by the School Board […]

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment in an age discrimination case based on comments by the decision maker about employees needing “21st Century Skills.”  The case is set for trial later this month.  More after the break.

Marlow was hired by the School Board in 1987 as the Director of Community Relations.  For approximately 20 years, she reported directly to the Superintendent and served successfully in this position.  In 2004, the School Board hired Tim Bullis as Marlow’s Assistant Director of Community Relations. 

Two years later, the Superintendent implemented a strategic plan to develop the School System’s “21st Century skills,” which primarily focused on integrating modern technologies.  The Superintendent then decided in 2007 that Marlow would report to his subordinate, and therefore, she would no longer attend the Superintendent’s “Direct Report Meetings.”  In 2008, the Superintendent transferred Marlow to the position of Director of Business and Government Relations (“DBGR”).  Marlow opposed the transfer.  Bullis replaced Marlow and was promoted to the Director of Community Relations.

In 2009, the Superintendent informed Marlow that due to budget constraints, the entire Business and Government Relations Department would be eliminated, including her position as DBGR.  During the meeting, Marlow contested the decision and stated that she had seniority over her former younger subordinate, Bullis.  In response, the Superintendent stated that he wanted “21st Century communications skill, and [Bullis] is better at that.”  Marlow then retired instead of accepting a demotion to lower-paying position. 

After Marlow’s retirement, the Superintendent presented a “21st Century Learning” PowerPoint presentation to his staff that appeared to correlate age to status as a “digital native,” or as a “digital immigrant,” one who was born before a particular technology was invented.

At summary judgment, the School Board argued that finances were the sole reasons for the decision to eliminate Marlow’s DBGR position.  The School Board also presented evidence to demonstrate that comments about “21st Century skills” were reference to a well-established skill set, which was a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the decision to transfer Marlow to the DBGR position.

The court held that the “21st Century skills” comments may have been gratuitous, but it also could be interpreted by a jury as circumstantial evidence of age bias, especially as the Superintendent’s PowerPoint presentation suggested that “21st Century skills” correlates with age.  Accordingly, the court denied summary judgment to the School Board based on this evidence of “potential age bias.”

For a copy of the court’s full opinion on the School District’s motion for summary judgment, click here.

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