A public school music teacher who was replaced by a less experienced teacher eleven years her junior was unable to show that her age – rather than her work-performance – was the basis of the non-renewal of her contract. Dorfman v. Pine Hill Board of Education, 3d Cir., No. 08-4012, September 30, 2009.

Judith Dorfman was hired in 2001 at age 56 by the Pine Hill New Jersey Board of Education. Her contract was renewed in 2002 and 2003. However, at the end of the 2003-04 school-year, Dorfman was told that there was a problem with her “fit” at the school, and her contract was not renewed for the following school year. Instead, Dorfman was replaced by a qualified, but less experienced, teacher who was eleven years younger than she.

Dorman filed a lawsuit claiming age discrimination. The School Board’s motion for summary judgment was granted by the district court. To support her discrimination claim, Dorfman first had to establish a prima facie case. She was able to do that by showing that she was a member of a protected age group, that Pine Hill did not renew her contract, and that she was replaced by a younger person. The lower court found that Pine Hill then met the second step of a three-step burden-shifting process by submitting evidence of Dorfman’s negative performance evaluation and her need to improve classroom skills as the “legitimate non-discriminatory reason” for the non-renewal of the contract. In order to ultimately succeed in proving discrimination, Dorfman would have had to demonstrate that Pine Hill’s reason for its action was not the true reason for the employment decision but was, instead, a pretext for discrimination. Dorfman’s case failed at this step, and was dismissed by the district court.

On appeal to the 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Dorfman argued that the district court should have found that Penn Hill’s “legitimate non-discriminatory reason” was a pretext for discrimination. First, Dorfman argued, earlier performance evaluations praised her classroom skills. However, upon review, the Third Circuit found that even the early evaluations noted that Dorfman “needed to improve her classroom disciplinary procedures.” Second, Dorfman argued that a remark by the school district’s Superintendent that Dorfman was “not a good fit” suggested age-based discrimination. However, without evidence of a pattern of contract non-renewals based on age, the Third Circuit was unwilling to find that the word “fit” suggested age bias.

Dorfman further argued that Pine Hill’s decision to hire a less experienced and younger replacement was strong circumstantial evidence of discrimination. However, the Third Circuit found that while the replacement had slightly less experience, she clearly was qualified for the position of music instructor. The Court held that in light of Dorfman’s job deficiencies, hiring a qualified teacher – even with less experience – did not constitute per se discrimination. In short, the school board’s evidence of Dorfman’s negative performance evaluation supported a proffer of a “legitimate non-discriminatory reason” for its action. Dorfman was unable to show that age was a determinative factor in the decision regarding her contract.

Once again, employers are reminded that fully documenting decisions, and assuring a reasonable relationship between those decisions and legitimate business-related issues, can assist in avoiding legal liability in claims of discrimination.