A Minority Employee Must Be “Clearly Better Qualified” For Promotion to Succeed in an Employment Discrimination Claim

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Just before the New Year’s Eve, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals topped off 2014 with yet another pro-employer decision. In Martinez v. Texas Workforce Commissionthe Court found that a Mexican-American employee failed to show that he was passed over for promotion because of his national origin and not because he was the lesser qualified candidate.

The Court of Appeals explained that where an employer offers a reason or reasons for promoting a white employee over a minority one, in order to show that these reasons are just a pretext, the minority employee must show that he is “clearly better qualified” such that “the qualifications are so widely disparate that no reasonable employer would have made the same decision.” Thus, Martinez had to show that his qualifications were so much better than the qualifications of the white employee who was promoted over him, that no reasonable employer would have promoted that employee over Martinez. If that sounds like a tough standard to meet for employees – it is.

The Court of Appeals clarified that employers may weigh the qualifications of prospective employees, so long as they are not motivated by race.  Thus, just because one employee has better education, work experience, and longer tenure, does not necessarily establish that he is clearly better qualified. An employer, for example, may value specific experience, such as military service, more than general experience or years of service at the company. Likewise, an employee’s experience in a particular department does not necessarily make him “clearly better clarified” than another employee who does not have such experience.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed many employers’ practice of scoring employees’ interview performances, finding that where the candidates are asked an identical set of questions and are scored based on the similarity of their answers to a model answer, their interview scores may serve as a legitimate basis for the employer’s decision whether to promote a particular employee. An employer must, however, provide evidence as to how the interviewers arrive at their scores.

CONCLUSION: In the the Fifth Circuit, which covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, once an employer shows that it had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason or reasons for promoting one employee over another, the employee who claims employment discrimination under Title VII must show that he or she was “clearly better qualified” for the promotion such that no reasonable employer would have made the same promotion decision.

Leiza Dolghih frequently advises employers on how to handle troublesome employees, assists with responding to EEOC charges, and litigates employment disputes. For more information, e-mail Leiza.Dolghih@GodwinLewis.com.

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