Are Your Employment Practices Up to Snuff, or Evidence of Pretext?

The factors you rely on to promote or hire one candidate over another may put you at risk of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in decisions related to hiring, firing, promotion, and compensation.  In Watson v. School Board of Franklin Parish, 2023 WL 2054308 (5th Cir. Feb. 16, 2023), the Fifth Circuit found that the reasons proffered by a school district for selecting one candidate over another were unworthy of credence and could be based on race.  Why?  Because even though the district appropriately convened an interview committee to rank the candidates, it failed to document reasons for hiring a white male over a more experienced African American female.

When Watson applied for an open principal position with the School Board of Franklin Parish, she  had worked in education for almost 50 years, including 7 years as a principal and 10 years as an assistant principal.  The district did not select her for the position, and instead hired a white male candidate who had only worked in education for 8 years, and had never worked as an administrator.  Watson sued under Title VII for alleged race discrimination.

In defending its hiring decision, the district claimed that it had considered educational credentials, certifications, interview scores, work history, and anticipated length of service, and decided that Watson was unlikely to remain in the position for very long because she had previously retired and didn’t live within the district.  Yet, the interview committee that was tasked to review and rank the candidates had actually scored Watson higher than the chosen candidate.

A jury can infer prextext if a candidate can show that she is clearly better qualified than the candidate chosen.  EEOC v. La. Office of Cmty. Servs., 47 F.3d 1438, 1444 (5th Cir. 1995).  In this case, the Fifth Circuit found that Watson established she was clearly better qualified than the chosen candidate, and that a jury could therefore infer that the reasons proffered by the district for selecting the white male candidate were false or unworthy of credence.  The court also noted that Watson had earned 10 certifications and had obtained a Master of Education degree.  Based on these factors, the court ruled that a jury could find that no reasonable person could have selected the white male over Watson absent racial discrimination, and that the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the district.  While the Court noted in a footnote that years of experience does not always suggest that one candidate is clearly better qualified, Watson had “specialized experience” as a school administrator that the chosen candidate did not have.

The takeaway from this case is that it is vital for everyone involved in the hiring process to keep accurate records of candidate qualifications, and of the specific reasons for hiring and promoting a specific candidate. What you may think are legitimate reasons to choose one candidate over another may put your employer at risk without proper documentation.

If you have any questions about this issue or would like to receive training on documentation and legal issues related to hiring and firing, please reach out to Celena Vinson, Stephanie Hamm, or any member of Thompson & Horton’s employment team.