No Bias Shown in Failure-to-Rehire Suit


By Joanne Deschenaux May 3, 2019

A former employee who was not rehired when a position became available following her layoff could not pursue her family and medical leave discrimination lawsuit because the company hired a better-qualified candidate, a California appellate court ruled.

The plaintiff, who claimed that she was not rehired because of her prior use of family and medical leave, failed to show that her qualifications were "substantially superior" to those of the person hired, the court found.

The plaintiff worked for Abbott Laboratories from 2004 until 2013 as a specialist in diabetic supplies. In September 2013, she was let go, and in March 2014, the same specialist position became available.

The plaintiff applied for the role, but it was offered to another candidate. The plaintiff then filed a lawsuit claiming that Abbott refused her the job because of medically related leaves of absence she had taken while employed.

[SHRM members-only resource: Managing Medical Leave in California]

The trial court granted Abbott's motion to dismiss the lawsuit before trial, and the plaintiff appealed.

No Evidence of Pretext

To establish a discrimination lawsuit, a job candidate must first show that he or she is a member of a protected class, is qualified for the position, and was not hired or promoted into the position. The plaintiff must also show "some other circumstance suggesting discriminatory motive," according to the court. The employer then has the opportunity to show that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for choosing another candidate. Then, the plaintiff may demonstrate that the employer's asserted reason was actually a pretext for discrimination.

In this case, even if the plaintiff met her initial burden of proof, the court said, Abbott had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not hiring her, because it chose to hire a better-qualified candidate.

And, the court said, to show pretext in this case, the plaintiff needed to show that her qualifications were at least substantially superior to those of the applicant who was hired.

Evidence of the plaintiff's competing qualifications "does not constitute evidence of pretext unless those differences are so favorable to the plaintiff that there can be no dispute among reasonable persons of impartial judgment that the plaintiff was clearly better qualified for the position at issue," the court said.

In this case, the plaintiff had several things going for her, the court noted: She was a registered nurse, she had a master's degree, and she was certified as a diabetes educator. However, the applicant who was hired had worked for another big pharmaceutical firm for the same length of time as the plaintiff worked for Abbott, and during that time, she won an international sales champion award and five regional champion awards.

In a job involving sales, the hired applicant "brought a proven track record of what any objective observer would have to conclude was a series of stellar sales performances," the court said.

This sank the plaintiff's pretext claim, the court ruled, affirming the trial court's dismissal of the complaint.

Villacreses v. Abbott Laboratories, Calif. Ct. App., No. G054983 (April 18, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Courts generally defer to the legitimate business decisions of employers in deciding which applicant is best qualified for a job. However, employers should carefully evaluate the qualifications of the candidates for a position and document the reasons for the successful applicant's selection.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 


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