Teacher Plausibly Alleges Age Discrimination, Court Holds

In Mackenzie v. New York City Dept. of Education, No. 21-CV-5711-LTS, 2023 WL 2711848 (S.D.N.Y. March 30, 2023), the court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s age discrimination claims asserted under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.

From the decision:

Here, Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to satisfy the first three elements of a prima facie case of age discrimination—it is undisputed that Plaintiff was over 40 years old while employed by Defendants; his long experience as a special education teacher with the DOE indicates that he was qualified for his position (and Defendants make no arguments to the contrary); and he suffered an adverse employment action when Defendants failed to extend his probationary employment agreement in October 2020 and notified him that his employment would terminate as of November 4, 2020. The sufficiency of his Complaint thus turns on whether Plaintiff has pleaded plausibly a basis for an inference that his employment was terminated because of his age.

The Court concludes that Plaintiff has alleged, albeit rather conclusorily, sufficient facts to raise an inference of age-based discrimination by Defendants. First, the sequence of events leading to Plaintiff’s termination raises an inference of age discrimination. Plaintiff alleges a continuing pattern of age-based discrimination throughout his employment with the DOE—including shifts from favorable evaluations to unfavorable reviews and treatment, and more favorable treatment of younger, less experienced employees. He was often replaced with multiple younger employees after he departed from a school. In the period leading up to his 2020 termination, Plaintiff alleges that the defendant principal and a younger assistant principal made an abrupt shift from favorable to unfavorable ratings and ceased providing feedback, instructing him, instead, to observe much younger and less experienced fellow teachers. He alleges that he and other, named, older teachers were given less-desirable assignments at the school from which he was terminated. These circumstances are suggestive of age-related bias and are sufficient at this pleading stage, when Plaintiff’s allegations are read in the light most favorable to him, to support the requisite inference of causal connection between his age and the termination.

The alleged disparate treatment of younger versus older employees at the Horan School is also suggestive of a discriminatory motivation for the termination. Plaintiff asserts that age discrimination was “commonplace” at the school, and provides several illustrative examples. (Add. Compl. ¶ 37.) Specifically, he identifies at least three special education teachers under 40 who received more favorable treatment than himself; and at least three other older teachers who were subjected to the types of mistreatment he allegedly experienced. At the motion to dismiss stage, and especially when considering Plaintiff’s pro se status, such allegations are sufficient, if barely so, to raise an inference of discrimination. See Trachtenberg v. Dep’t of Educ. of City of New York, 937 F. Supp. 2d 460, 471 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (speech teacher’s ADEA claim sufficiently raised an inference of disparate treatment where plaintiff had identified “at least one speech teacher under 40 who was allegedly treated differently;” several “other teachers under 40 who were allegedly treated differently;” and “five teachers over 40 who were allegedly subjected to … similar mistreatment as [plaintiff].”)

Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot make out a discrimination claim because the DOE had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating him (i.e., his poor performance reviews). This argument is unavailing, because an employer’s reasons for termination should not be considered at the pleading stage, particularly where, as here, the cited legitimate grounds are themselves alleged to be the product of discriminatory actions. See id. at 472 (“In any event, whether the [DOE] had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its [employment] actions is an issue for summary judgment or trial.”).

Based on this, the court concluded that plaintiff plausibly pled his claim that the discontinuance of his employment was due to age discrimination under the ADEA, the NYSHRL, and the NYCHRL.

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