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Appeals Court Revives Custodial Supervisor's Age-Bias Claim

A federal appeals court has revived the age-discrimination lawsuit of a school custodial supervisor who was laid off by a Virginia school district.

Alexander Harris was 72 and had worked for the Powhatan County school system for 52 years when his job was eliminated in the spring of 2009. Harris had inquired about retirement, but was concerned about getting paid for his accrued annual leave. He submitted his annual notice of intent to return the next school year, court papers say.

The superintendent told the school board in an email that Harris, who is black, was pressuring the school system to get paid for his leave and suggested he might sue over race or age discrimination if he didn't get it. The school board eliminated Harris' position, which saved about $100,000 in annual salary and benefit costs. . A total of 14 employees' jobs were slashed from the 2009-10 school budget, including those of several young workers and two other custodial employees over age 70.

Harris' duties as the district's supervisor of custodial services were spread among several employees, including a much younger white worker.

Harris sued for race and age discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. A federal district court granted summary judgment to the school district, ruling that Harris had failed to show that the district's stated reasons for his termination were pretexts for discrimination.

In its Oct. 22 decision in Harris v. Powhatan County School Board, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., unanimously upheld the dismissal of Harris' race-discrimination claim, but it reinstated his age-bias complaint.

The court said that Harris had established a prima facie, or on its face, case of age discrimination, and that there was sufficient evidence to undermine the school district's contention that Harris' job was eliminated for permissible reasons (to save money and because he was inclined to retire). 

"We note the importance of the fact that each of the custodial positions eliminated were occupied by individuals over the age of 70," the appeals court said. "While it is true that younger employees in other departments were also terminated, the decision to eliminate several positions occupied by older individuals within the same department is somewhat suspicious."

"When drawing all inferences in Harris' favor, he has provided sufficient evidence to contradict the board's proffered reasons for the termination," the court added. "From this evidence of contradiction, a jury might ultimately conclude that age discrimination was the actual reason for the termination."

The decision sends Harris' case back to the district court for trial on the age-bias claim.

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