• No Age Discrimination Where Successful Candidate Had Superior Credentials, California Court Holds
  • August 16, 2010 | Author: Mark S. Askanas
  • Law Firm: Jackson Lewis LLP - San Francisco Office
  • A 56-year-old job applicant had no age discrimination claim under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act where he lacked superior credentials and the prospective employer presented consistent justifications for hiring a 40-year-old candidate, the California Court of Appeal has held. Reeves v. MV Transp., Inc., No. A125927 (Cal. Ct. App. Jul. 9, 2010). The FEHA prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of age (40 and over). The Court further determined that the employer’s spoliation of evidence alone did not create a triable issue. Accordingly, the Court affirmed summary judgment for the employer.

    The Facts
    In January 2005, MV Transportation, Inc.’s General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer, John Biard, sought to hire a staff attorney experienced in traditional labor law and employment litigation. The requirements in his online notice included “substantial experience representing management in labor/management issues” and “proven employment litigation experience, including responding to administrative agency civil rights actions.”

    On January 21, 2005, David B. Reeves (age 56), who was then a Field Attorney with the National Labor Relations Board, submitted his resume to Biard, by e-mail from his work account, to be considered for the position. Biard was “put off” by receiving an e-mail from a taxpayer-supported government office during working hours, according to his deposition testimony. He also found the tone of the e-mail arrogant.

    Biard later decided to interview Gail Blanchard-Saiger (age 40), who had submitted a resume outlining her experience. Blanchard-Saiger’s resume showed that she graduated from college in 1986, and worked for four years as a human resources manager where, among other things, she assisted with negotiating the company’s first union contract.  She graduated from UC Davis law school in the top five percent of her class, became a member of the New York and California Bar Associations, and clerked three years for a federal judge.  She joined the law firm Foley & Lardner in 1997 and was a Senior Counsel in labor and employment litigation at the time of her application.  Additionally, she had been recommended by an attorney at Foley & Lardner whom Biard knew and respected. Biard chose Blanchard-Saiger for an interview.

    After interviewing Blanchard-Saiger, Biard stopped interviewing candidates for the position because he “clicked” with Blanchard-Saiger. Biard never interviewed Reeves.

    Reeves subsequently sued the company for age discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

    The company moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Reeves appealed, arguing his claim presented a genuine issue of material fact regarding pretext on the part of the employer. For support, he pointed to his “superior” qualifications, the employer’s inconsistent explanations for its hiring decision, and the spoliation of certain evidence.

    The Standard for Pretext
    The appellate court explained that to establish the company’s reasons for hiring Blanchard-Saiger over the plaintiff were pretext for age discrimination, the plaintiff must “offer substantial evidence that the employer’s stated nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action was untrue or pretextual, or evidence the employer acted with a discriminatory animus, or a combination of the two, such that a reasonable trier of fact could conclude the employer engaged in intentional discrimination.”  However, a plaintiff “cannot simply show that the employer’s decision was wrong or mistaken, since the factual dispute at issue is whether discriminatory animus motivated the employer, not whether the employer is wise, shrewd, prudent, or competent.” Where a candidate’s qualifications are challenged, the employee must demonstrate that he was “significantly better qualified for the job.”

    Superior Qualifications Argument Rejected
    Reeves argued he was more qualified than Blanchard-Saiger because he had more traditional labor law experience. The Court noted that it did not necessarily follow that more “experience in that area was ... more valuable to [the company] than employment law experience.” Indeed, Biard viewed the plaintiff’s lack of employment litigation experience as a significant weakness.

    Further, Blanchard-Saiger had a number of advantages that Reeves did not, including the recommendation of an attorney Biard respected, bar admissions in New York and California, and law firm and human resources experience. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Reeves’ credentials were not, as he argued, “vastly superior” to Blanchard-Saiger’s.

    Reasons for Hiring Decision were Consistent
    Reeves argued that the company gave inconsistent reasons for its hiring decision. He pointed to slight differences between Biard’s statements in an interview during administrative proceedings and his subsequent deposition. The Court found that any differences were inconsequential and insufficient to raise a triable issue. Indeed, the Court noted that Biard consistently identified Reeves’ lack of employment litigation experience and “arrogant” e-mails as reasons for his negative impression of Reeves. Biard also stated repeatedly that he decided not to interview Reeves because he found an exceptionally well-qualified candidate early in the process.

    Spoliation of Evidence Not Enough
    Finally, Reeves argued, because the company discarded the resumes and applications of other candidates after it hired Blanchard-Saiger, the spoliation of evidence constituted pretext for discrimination. Under California law, the company was required to retain those resumes and applications for at least two years. Because it knowingly destroyed them in accordance with its practice at the time, the Court found that the company had a “culpable state of mind.” Thus, the Court assumed, for the purpose of summary judgment, that the applications might have disclosed relevant evidence. Nevertheless, “spoliation of evidence alone does not necessarily create a triable issue.” There also must be other “substantial evidence” of pretext to survive summary judgment. As this was lacking, the Court affirmed summary judgment for the employer.