Recently, in Crivelli v. Montgomery County Emergency Services District Number 7, No. 22-20312, 2023 WL 2823065 (5th Cir. Apr. 7, 2023), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit address the issue of proving qualification for a particular job as part of the requirement to prove employment discrimination.
Rachael Crivelli sued her employer for wrongful termination based on gender discrimination. In 2017, Montgomery County Emergency Services promoted Crivelli from rank-and-file firefighter to Captain. Shortly thereafter, Crivelli repeatedly failed the physical assessment requirements after being given multiple chances. Specifically, Crivelli was given five opportunities to pass the physical assessment, two more than allowed by written policy.
As part of the physical assessment, the firefighters need to pass requirements in three exercises: sit-ups, push-ups, and either a timed run or a timed rowing exercise. The physical assessment requirements were age-and gender-adjusted. For example, 31-year-old Crivelli was required to do 13 push-ups; a man of her age would have been expected to do 35. Other than Crivelli, every woman passed the assessment test the first time. The four men that never passed the physical assessment were terminated or resigned. The passage rate was 80 percent for women and 77 percent for men.
What is McDonnell Douglas test?
There are two ways to prove employment discrimination, either through direct evidence or indirect evidence. Where direct evidence is not available, the McDonnell Douglas test, also known as the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, is a legal framework used in employment discrimination cases. The test was first established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), and has since been refined by subsequent Supreme Court decisions. The test is a three-part framework that helps to determine whether an employee has established a prima facie case of discrimination. If the employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the employer to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer provides such a reason, the burden then shifts back to the employee to show that the employer’s reason is pretextual and that discrimination was the real reason for the adverse employment action.
The first step of the McDonnell Douglas test requires the employee to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. The elements of a prima facie case vary depending on the type of discrimination alleged. In a case alleging disparate treatment, the employee must show that the employee: (1) is a member of a protected class, such as based on race/color, national origin, or age; (2) was qualified for the job; (3) was subject to an adverse employment action; and (4) was similarly situated individuals outside of the employee’s protected class were treated more favorably. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802.
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What does qualified for the job mean in the legal sense?
The second element of a prima facie case is the “qualified for the job” element. In order to satisfy this element, the employee must show that he/she/they was qualified for the position at issue. This means that the employee must show that he/she/they had the requisite education, experience, and other qualifications for the position. The qualified for the job element is important because it helps to establish that the adverse employment action was not based on the employee’s lack of qualifications for the position.
Courts have held that the qualified for the job element does not require the employee to show that he/she/they was the most qualified candidate for the position. Rather, the employee only needs to show that he/she/they was qualified for the position in order to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. See, e.g., EEOC v. Horizon/CMS Healthcare Corp., 220 F.3d 1184, 1194 (10th Cir. 2000) (“An employee need not be the best qualified candidate for the job in order to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.”); Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp., 400 U.S. 542, 544 (1971) (“The [qualified for the job] requirement was satisfied here by petitioner’s application for a job for which he was qualified, though not the best qualified, and by the fact that, after his rejection, the position remained open and the employer continued to seek applicants from persons of complainant’s qualifications.”).
In some cases, the qualified for the job element may be satisfied by showing that the employee was performing satisfactorily in her current position. For example, in McDonnell Douglas, the employee was a mechanic who was laid off after the company’s reduction in force. The United States Supreme Court held that the employee satisfied the qualified for the job element by showing that he had been performing his job satisfactorily prior to the layoff. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802.
In some cases, the qualified for the job element may be satisfied by showing that the employee met or exceeded the employer’s objective criteria for the position. For example, in Garcia v. Spun Steak Co., 998 F.2d 1480 (9th Cir. 1993), the plaintiff was a Hispanic man who applied for a position as a plant manager. The employer had a policy of promoting from within, and the employee had worked his way up from a laborer position to a supervisor position. The employee met all of the objective criteria for the position, including having a college degree and extensive experience in the industry. The Court held that the employee satisfied the qualifications for the job element by showing that he met all of the objective criteria for the position. Garcia, 998 F.2d at 1487.
In other cases, the qualified for the job element may be satisfied by showing that the employee was as qualified as or more qualified than the person who was ultimately hired for the position. For example, in EEOC v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC, 566 F.3d 1098 (10th Cir. 2009), the employee was a woman who applied for a position as a lab technician. The employer hired a man for the position who had less experience and education than the employee. The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that the employee satisfied the qualified for the job element by showing that she was at least as qualified as the man who was hired for the position. Heartland Sweeteners, 566 F.3d at 1105-06.
In summary, the qualified for the job element of the McDonnell Douglas test requires the employee to show that she was qualified for the position at issue. This means that the employee must show that she had the requisite education, experience, and other qualifications for the position. The employee does not need to show that she was the most qualified candidate for the position, but only that she was qualified for the position. In some cases, the employee may be able to satisfy the qualified for the job element by showing that she was performing satisfactorily in her current position, while in other cases the employee may need to show that she possessed specific qualifications that were required for the position. The employee may also be able to satisfy the qualified for the job element by showing that she met or exceeded the employer’s objective criteria for the position or was as qualified as or more qualified than the person who was ultimately hired for the position.
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What happened in Crivelli?
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her lawsuit, holding:
Because she failed MCESD7’s physical fitness assessment, Crivelli was not qualified for the position at issue. It is true that she has significant experience in firefighting, as well as many certifications and training experiences. Yet as the district court correctly noted, qualifications are an employer’s prerogative. Johnson v. Louisiana, 351 F.3d 616, 622 (5th Cir. 2003) (“An employer may establish job requirements, and rely on them in arguing that a prima facie case is not established because the employee is not ‘qualified.’”). MCESD7 was free to establish new physical assessment standards and require its employees meet those standards.
Do I have a claim for wrongful termination?
Pursuing a claim for wrongful termination is complicated. There are a lot of different factors that are involved from proving discriminatory intent to qualifications for the job and pretext. The best way to evaluate and pursue employment discrimination and wrongful firing claims is to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical; Employment Law: Avoid Hiring The Wrong Attorney). Call our lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Kentucky to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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