Appeals Court Rejects Teacher’s Age-Bias Suit

By Mark Walsh — February 04, 2013 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has rejected the lawsuit of a 64-year-old parochial school teacher who claims she was a victim of age discrimination when she was replaced with a teacher in her 20s.

Martha Lou Braun was a 5th grade teacher at St. Pius X School, a Roman Catholic school in Tulsa, Okla., since 1988. In 2008, the school’s principal recommended to the church pastor that Braun’s annual teaching contract not be renewed. The principal, Matthew Vereecke, told Braun the school was “going in a new direction” and that the decision was “not about her,” court papers say.

Braun was replaced by a teacher in her 20s who had been teaching middle school at St. Pius, and Braun was not considered for another open position, which also went to a teacher in her 20s.

Braun sued under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. A federal district court held that she offered a prima facie, or on its face, case of discrimination. But St. Pius offered what the court found to be a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her nonrenewal: that Braun had received parental complaints about her teaching. Examining the evidence under the U.S. Supreme Court’s job-discrimination precedents, the court said Braun did not prove that St. Pius’s proffered reason was merely a pretext for age bias.

In a Feb. 4 decision in Braun v. St. Pius X Parish, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, unanimously upheld the district court.

The appeals court rejected Braun’s arguments that younger teachers had also received parental complaints and thus shewas not being treated comparably with her nonrenewal over two complaints. But the appeals court pointed to evidence that the complaints about Braun were more serious than those about the other teachers.

The court also rejected Braun’s argument that the employer’s inconsistent statements about the reason for her nonrenewal were evidence of pretext.

“A change in an employer’s asserted reason for an employment action does not give rise to an inference of discrimination where the new reason is supported by the evidence,” the 10th Circuit court said.

Also, the court rejected Braun’s arguments that the principal failed to follow his own unwritten policy of passing along complaints and giving teachers a chance to improve. The principal’s consideration of the complaints about Braun in making his recommendation not to renew her, the court said, “falls into a category of employment decisions this court will not second-guess even if it seems in hindsight that the action taken constituted poor business judgment.”

Borrowing from an earlier opinion, the 10th Circuit court said, “Our role is to prevent intentional discriminatory hiring practices, not to act as a ‘super personnel department.’”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.