The Texas Supreme Court held that an age discrimination plaintiff is never entitled to an inference of age discrimination at the prima facie case where the employee’s replacement is older than plaintiff-employee. In that situation, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case through direct evidence of age discrimination.
Gloria Garcia (age 48) was terminated from her school district employment after twenty-seven years. She was replaced by a female employee of the same national origin and who was three years older than Garcia. She sued alleging that she was retaliated against for participating in protected activities and discriminated against based on her race, national origin, age and gender. The trial court dismissed Garcia’s claims because she could not prove she was replaced by an employee outside her protected categories.
The Texas Supreme Court granted review in the case to determine whether a plaintiff can establish a prima facie case of age discrimination when undisputed evidence shows that the plaintiff was replaced by someone older. The answer, according to the court, was plainly, no.
The reasoning for the Supreme Court’s holding is best summarized in considering the following passage referring the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in O’Conner v. Consol. Coin Caterers Corp., (which held that an age discrimination plaintiff needs to show replacement by someone not insubstantially younger than the plaintiff:
If an inference of discrimination cannot be draw from replacement by an ‘insignificantly younger’ worker, then one certainly cannot be draw from replacement by an older worker. That is the situation confronting us today, and that is the reason we hold that a plaintiff in Garcia’s situation cannot make out a prima facie case of age discrimination.
The holding may have limited applicability in non-replacement cases (i.e., reduction in force cases where the plaintiff is not replaced); cases where the employee alleges that work rules were applied more harshly to older workers than younger workers; or cases where the plaintiff has direct evidence of age discrimination. Notwithstanding the opinion’s limitations, in age discrimination cases where the replacement employee is older than the plaintiff, and in the absence of direct evidence, Garcia strongly supports the dismissal of the age discrimination claim.
The result of this holding is that plaintiffs wanting to assert age discrimination claims in cases where the plaintiff was replaced by an older worker will likely elect to pursue those claims in federal court under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act rather than under state law. Moreover, Garcia gives support to the argument that other TCHRA discrimination claims should be dismissed where the plaintiff is replaced by someone in the the same protected category. The trial court dismissed Garcia’s race, sex and national origin claims on that basis and Garcia did not appeal those conclusions. The logic of the Court’s opinion that an absence of discrimination exists when the plaintiff’s replacement is older than the plaintiff seems to apply equally to other kinds of discrimination claims where the replacement employee is also a member of the plaintiff’s protected category. Time will tell if the courts of appeals will apply this argument outside the age discrimination context.
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Majority opinion in Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist.
Dissenting opinion in Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist.