As with most employment discrimination legal questions, the answer is “it depends.” Indeed, it will likely come down to the particular workplace facts as opposed to the law in question. As our employment discrimination lawyers have discussed often before, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”), employers are prohibited from engaging in discrimination based on race/color, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, disability, and age.
To establish a prima facie case of employment discrimination by indirect evidence, employees must show:
- They belong to a protected class as described above.
- They were qualified for the job or position in question.
- Despite being qualified, they were subjected to an adverse employment action, such as being fired, demoted, denied a promotion or not hired for a position for which they applied.
- They were replaced by or treated less favorably than employees outside the protected class.
Should the employer do so, the burden of production shifts to the employer to state a not discriminatory reason for the adverse action. This is where the issue of “not a good fit” comes in. Recently, in Lashley v. Spartanburg Methodist Coll., No. 22-1447, 2023 WL 2977754, at *8 (4th Cir. Apr. 18, 2023), the employee sued for disability discrimination and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held on this point:
We come then to the main thrust of Lashley’s pretext argument, namely that SMC’s “good fit” justification is a thinly veiled disguise for retaliation. Lashley insists that “Gibbs’s conclusory statement that she was not a ‘good fit’ for SMC … is itself compelling evidence of retaliatory animus.” Opening Br. at 32.
This is too broad an assertion. Describing an employee as not a “good fit” is an assessment that employers make all the time. Maybe someone’s skills do not match up with the institution’s mission. Maybe someone’s work ethic falls short of expectations. Maybe someone is just not a good team player. Though there may be circumstances where evidence reveals that “good fit” is a subterfuge for discrimination or retaliation, it is also a perfectly innocuous comment that an organization’s collaborative goals would not be furthered, and in fact might be retarded, by a particular employee. Institutional success is often a collective enterprise toward which an employer has entirely reasonable expectations that each employee should contribute.
With this in mind, an employer likely will have to offer more than saying “it was a bad fit” or something to that effect. Indeed, in providing this explanation, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit gave several reasons why the fit could not be good.
Then applying this standard to the facts of the case before it, the Fourth Circuit pointed to the actual reason given by the employer to justify the non-renewal of the employee’s one year teaching contract. Namely, that Summer Lashley said that she did not have sufficient time to prepare for her classes, used her 10 hours of designated office time to socialize with students, showed up to class unprepared, and was the subject of ongoing complaints from students and faculty. Additionally, “Lashley complained about her identity appearing in a SMC press release… even though she had consented to the use of her name.” She had a consistent “petty” beef with another professor. And she was found to have an “inappropriately close relationship with her work-study student,” who she once made drive to her home.
Sometimes “not a good fit” is thinly veiled pretext for discrimination or wrongful termination, but other times, it is the employer choosing not to dump a laundry list of problems on to an official document that may follow the employee. This appears to be the latter.
Keep reading because as they say on TV, “but wait, there is more.”
After the non-renewal for the next school year, there was still time left on Lashley’s teaching contract. She did not react well to being told her time was running out on February 13, 2018:
Lashley did not take kindly to this news. Various employees at SMC reported troubling behavior from Lashley in the following three days. On the same day Lashley was notified of the decision not to renew her contract, Gibbs claims he saw Lashley cleaning out her office and taking boxes to her car. When he asked her what she was doing, she angrily shouted at him for betraying her. The following day, a professor who shared an office with Lashley testified that she overheard Lashley tell a group of students that she felt like “blowing the school up.” Then on February 15, another member of the faculty testified that Lashley spoke with him and said, “Bad stuff happens when people cross me. My dad says it’s true. They turn up dead.” Lashley allegedly called certain individuals like Gibbs “evil people” who would “get theirs.”
Id. at *3 (citations to the record omitted). Three days later, reports of these incidents made their way to SMC’s President, W. Scott Cochran, who fired Lashley. She was no longer a “good fit.”
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Do I have an employment discrimination claim for being wrongly fired?
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