Liberty University’s comment that a 79-year-old professor would “have great difficulty with any changes” didn’t prove age discrimination, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held June 30 in Palmer v. Liberty University.
The art professor, who had worked at the school for more than 30 years, was directed to accomplish two goals to receive a promotion to full professor, the court explained. First, she needed to increase the quality and quantity of her personal output — exhibitions, publications and conference presentations, for example. Second, she needed to improve her digital art skillset and technology skills, to teach digital art courses and to incorporate technology into her existing courses. After meeting the first goal, she was promoted at age 77.
Liberty eventually reported increased demand for digital art classes and said it was struggling to meet that demand. Because the plaintiff was not qualified to teach these classes, the dean decided not to renew her contract for the following school year.
The school’s provost suggested giving the plaintiff another year to improve her technology and digital art skills, according to the 4th Circuit, but the dean rejected the suggestion, saying the professor would “have great difficulty with any changes.” The pair also discussed the possibility of retirement but decided to characterize her departure in that way only if she suggested it.
The professor sued, alleging the nonrenewal was because of her age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
A federal district court dismissed her claim, saying the comments didn’t show direct discrimination and, even if they did reflect bias, she could not show that her age was the “but-for” cause of her nonrenewal — a standard that requires workers prove that “but-for” their age, they wouldn’t have suffered the adverse employment action. Additionally, she had failed to meet Liberty’s legitimate expectations, it said.
The professor appealed, but the 4th Circuit agreed with the lower court. The statements didn’t amount to direct evidence of discrimination, it said; instead, the comments about retirement were merely internal discussions about how to handle the nonrenewal if she raised the possibility of retirement.
Additionally, she provided no evidence that the school believed she was resistant to change because of her age, the court said. “Liberty believed that [the professor] was resistant to change because of her demonstrated failure to develop digital skills after her supervisors repeatedly advised her to do so,” it concluded, quoting the lower court affirming its ruling.