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Miss.: No Age Bias in Employee’s Termination for Sloppy Paperwork
 

By Diane Cadrain  7/10/2014

A Mississippi employee’s sloppy and incomplete paperwork led to her termination, despite the employee’s supervisor’s alleged statement that the employee was “just old,” a Mississippi federal court ruled.

Gloria Whitfield was a social worker at Trent Lott Academy, one of the elementary schools in the Pascagoula School District. In 2012, the school principal, Elizabeth Dock, told Whitfield that there had been deficiencies in some of the paperwork Whitfield had turned in and told her that she would develop a plan of assistance for Whitfield unless her performance approved. Whitfield’s performance did not approve, so a plan of assistance was developed. The plan noted Whitfield's alleged “failure to consistently communicate in a positive professional manner with peers, students, and parents" and her alleged "inconsistent completion of necessary documents and/or documents with grammatical errors." At a meeting concerning the plan, Whitfield told Dock that several co-workers had been bullying her, but Whitfield did not submit grievances about their behavior. Dock met with the co-workers, according to Whitfield, and when Whitfield asked Dock what had happened at that meeting, Dock told her, "I told the ladies that you were just old."

Two days after receiving the plan of assistance, Whitfield again submitted to incomplete work containing grammatical errors. Dock thereupon recommended Whitfield for termination. The superintendent of education gave Whitfield the opportunity to resign in lieu of termination, which she did on May 24, 2013, at age 58. She sued the district in federal court for age discrimination.

The school district conceded, and the federal court agreed, that Whitfield had made out a good initial case of age discrimination by showing that she had been discharged from a position for which she was qualified, was within the protected class at the time of the discharge; and that she was either i) replaced by someone outside the protected class, ii) replaced by someone younger, or iii) otherwise discharged because of age.

In response to this showing, the court said, the district had to present a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the discharge. The district showed evidence of Whitfield’s repeated failure to provide complete and grammatically correct paperwork to her superiors. Whitfield disputed the district’s argument, but the district provided the deficient paperwork that led to Whitfield's termination. The court noted that the paperwork contains unanswered questions in addition to grammatical, formatting, and typographical errors. As a result, the court decided, Whitfield has not demonstrated that the district’s proffered reason for her termination was false.

Whitfield also claimed that Dock's "you were just old" comment was evidence that Whitfield's age was the reason for her termination. The district countered that Dock's alleged comment should be considered a stray remark that is insufficient to support discrimination claim. The court stated that the remarks would not prove discriminatory intent in the absence of other evidence of pretext, and concluded that she had not proven that the district’s reasons for discharge were not pretextual.

Whitfield v. Pascagoula School District, S.D. Miss., No. 1:13CV415-LG-JMR (June 12, 2014).

Diane Cadrain is an attorney who has been writing about employment law issues for more than 20 years.
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