Fla.: Job Applicant Shows Rejection May Have Been Pretextual

By Rosemarie Lally Dec 16, 2014
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A job applicant purportedly rejected on the basis of her educational background showed sufficient inconsistencies in the reasons proffered for her rejection to allow her discrimination claims to proceed to trial, a Florida federal court held.

Etheria Rolle-Collie sued Florida's Office of the Attorney General (OAG) for discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and national origin because it rejected her application for a financial investigator position.

The OAG posted a job announcement for a financial investigator in early 2012, seeking applicants with a bachelor’s degree in “a related field” and five years of professional experience conducting financial investigations. Professional or nonprofessional experience in law enforcement or civil investigations could substitute on a year-for-year basis for the required education requirement, the announcement said. It also expressed a preference for applicants fluent in Spanish, those with experience in civil or criminal fraud and/or white-collar criminal investigations, and those with a degree in criminal justice or background in financial crimes investigations.

Rolle-Collie is a black woman with bachelor’s degrees in computer information systems and business administration. At the time of her application, she had 10 years of experience as a private investigator and two years of experience investigating equal employment opportunity claims for the U.S. Postal Service. She applied for the announced position and was called in for a first-round interview. She advanced to a second-round interview but ultimately was not hired. A white male who spoke Spanish was hired for the position and Rolle-Collie sued for discrimination.

In its motion for summary judgment, the OAG argued that Rolle-Collie was unqualified for the position because her degree was not in “a related field,” which it contended is one related to criminal justice. However, Rolle-Collie furnished an OAG document suggesting that the OAG itself considered business administration to be a field sufficiently related to criminal justice.

In addition, the court noted that, according to the announcement, a bachelor’s degree was not a truly dispositive qualification because investigative experience was allowed to substitute for the required education.

Although the OAG argued that Rolle-Collie's decade of investigative experience was insufficiently related to the type of investigative experience called for in the announcement, the court found that the announcement failed to define “precisely and objectively” what sort of "other related investigative experience" could qualify an applicant.

“The OAG's determination as to whether Rolle-Collie, along with each of the other candidates, satisfied the announcement's requirements appears to have resulted from a subjective, individualized review of each candidate's background,” the court said. While there is nothing inherently discriminatory about hiring decisions made on a subjective basis, an employer cannot rely on subjective criteria relating to a plaintiff's qualifications to defeat a plaintiff's prima facie case, the court said. “The court thus rejects the OAG's subjective determination—untethered to any objective, measurable criteria—that Rolle-Collie's investigative experience was insufficiently related to the work of a financial investigator as a basis for finding her unqualified for the position.”

Although the person hired for the position was bilingual in English and Spanish, had a degree in criminal justice as well as a J.D., and had investigative experience more closely related to the types of investigations to be performed by the financial investigator, “the OAG's reliance upon Rolle-Collie's educational background to justify her rejection, despite evidence that a business administration degree such as Rolle-Collie's would satisfy the announcement's educational requirements, presents inconsistencies sufficient to give rise to an inference of pretext.”

Rolle-Collie v. State of Florida, Attorney General Office, S.D. Fla., Case No. 13-62766-CIV-COHN/SELTZER (Nov. 4, 2014).

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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