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School admin’s ADEA claims survive

Nick Hurston//August 8, 2022

School admin’s ADEA claims survive

Nick Hurston//August 8, 2022

A high-ranking school administrator’s claims that her school board employer discriminated and retaliated against her because of her age have survived dismissal in a Virginia federal court.

“Plaintiff alleges sufficient facts that make plausible her age discrimination claim under the ADEA,” Judge Anthony J. Trenga of the Eastern District of Virginia concluded.

Trenga dismissed her Title VII claims, however, because her “main allegation …goes to age, not sex, discrimination.”

The July 7 opinion is Anthony v. Alexandria City Public Schools (VLW 022-3-295).

The reorganization

Mignon R. Anthony, a 63-year-old female, was hired by the Alexandria City School Board in January 2018 as chief operating officer, or COO. The COO had executive oversight for school transportation, food, facilities, capital budgets health and security.

Within months, the board hired Dr. Gregory Hutchings as superintendent. According to Anthony, Hutchings was immediately hostile and dismissive of advice from an older woman.

When Hutchings hired Dr. Stephen Wilkins, who had previously worked for Hutchings in another school district, to be his chief of human resources in 2019, Anthony claimed “things began to change immediately.”

Specifically, she alleged that Hutchings reduced his meetings with her and began having Wilkins attend, even though the subject didn’t involve human resources. Although Hutchings told her Wilkins was just getting up to speed, she alleges he asked her to familiarize Wilkins with budgetary matters outside the purview of human resources.

Things came to a head when Hutchings called in to a meeting with Anthony and the board’s 71-year-old director of transportation. Hutchings described vague complaints and strike threats made by bus drivers about their pay and training.

Anthony claimed she was instructed by Hutchings to meet with Wilkins and transportation employees, but the next day she was told that another employee would attend in her place. Hutchings fired the transportation director after the meeting.

Concerned by Hutchings’ conduct, Anthony made several unsuccessful attempts to contact him over the next few weeks. When they finally met, Hutchings informed Anthony that Wilkins would handle the transportation complaints, effectively eliminating her authority over that department.

After Wilkins reported on his investigation, Hutchings announced pay increases for transportation employees, despite lacking proper budget approval.

Anthony wrote to the board about her concerns regarding Hutchings’ budgetary choices and disparate treatment of older employees. The board reviewed the matter and advised Anthony to discuss the matter with Hutchings.

When Hutchings read Anthony’s letter, he called her to a meeting with Wilkins present as his witness. He also denied Anthony’s requests to have her own witness present or to record the conversation.

“The restructuring plan sought to terminate older employees while giving a younger one a chance to be rehired, and Anthony was replaced by “a woman in her 30s and outside the protected class, whose years of ‘practical, technical and business operational experience pales in comparison’ to Plaintiff’s.”

– Judge Anthony J. Trenga

According to Anthony, Hutchings said he viewed the board letter as a betrayal and called her a “traitor.” When Anthony accused Hutchings of being biased against the transportation director because of his age, she claimed Hutchings said he “never thought positively” about the man.

During a November 2019 joint presentation, Anthony alleged that Hutchings interrupted her by claiming that she had been insubordinate, which shocked other employees. When other employees came to Anthony’s defense, she claims Hutchings became enraged.

The next month, Hutchings announced a restructuring plan which affected seven employees, all over the age of 40. The plan eliminated the COO position and merged it with human resources to create a new position which was organizationally lower, but otherwise mirrored Anthony’s role. But the new position required a master’s degree, which Anthony didn’t have.

During her remaining tenure, Hutchings and Wilkins were allegedly openly dismissive and hostile towards Anthony. She claimed they referred to her ideas as “old school” and generally disparaged her.

After she was terminated, Anthony filed a complaint with the Alexandria Office of Human Rights, who found insufficient evidence to support her allegations. This suit followed.

Age discrimination

Trenga concluded that Anthony had satisfied the first three elements of an ADEA discrimination claim, because she was over 40 years old, was terminated, and suffered that adverse employment action despite meeting her employer’s expectations.

In examining whether Anthony sufficiently alleged that she was treated less favorably than and/or replaced by someone outside her protected class or substantially younger, Trenga credited the specific and general allegations about age bias from Hutchings and Wilkins.

He also pointed out that the restructuring plan sought to terminate older employees while giving a younger one a chance to be rehired, and that Anthony was replaced by “a woman in her 30s and outside the protected class, whose years of ‘practical, technical and business operational experience pales in comparison’ to Plaintiff’s.”

“That is sufficient at this stage,” the judge concluded.

Further, Trenga found that Anthony also plead sufficient facts to support an ADEA retaliation claim, because the restructuring plan and her termination were announced soon enough after her complaint to the board to establish the necessary causal link.

Title VII

Anthony claimed that the board violated Title VII by stripping her of her supervisory role and terminating her because of her sex. She also alleged that Hutchings intentionally treated her worse than male employees.

But Trenga concluded that while Anthony had alleged an adverse employment action, at least two of the positions eliminated by the restructuring plan were held by men, and the plaintiff’s replacement was female.

As a result, her allegations “fail to support a reasonable inference that she lost her supervisory responsibilities and position because of her sex.”

Further the judge rebuffed the plaintiff’s hostile environment claim because she failed to show that Hutchings’ conduct was because of her sex, or that the alleged conduct was severe or pervasive.

Finally, Trenga rejected Anthony’s retaliation claim, finding that her letter to the board “does not complain about, or even suggest, employment actions that are, or might be, unlawful under Title VII.”

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