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Retirement comments not direct evidence of age bias

Liberty University

Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia (DEPOSIT PHOTOS)

Even though a university dean and provost made comments about a professor’s retirement plans, those comments, without more, were not “direct evidence” of age discrimination.

The decision is Palmer v. Liberty University.

Plaintiff Eva Palmer sued Liberty University, alleging age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

A trial court granted summary judgement for the university.

On appeal, Palmer argued that retirement comments made by the dean and the provost — along with a comment from the dean about her being resistant-to-change — demonstrated that Liberty harbored age-based animus towards her and did not renew her contract on account of her age.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It noted that two other federal courts of appeal have found that “mere comments or inquiries about retirement — without more — fail to constitute direct evidence of age discrimination.”

First, the court said that “the retirement comments were not actually presented to Palmer — rather, they were made by the dean and by the provost during internal deliberations about how to handle Palmer’s nonrenewal if she brought up the possibility of retirement. Second, even if those comments had been addressed directly to Palmer, they were devoid of any reference to Palmer’s age. Similar to the two retirement comments, the resistant-to- change comment was not connected to Palmer’s age.”

The parties also disagreed over whether the plaintiff was performing her duties at the expected level. But the court said that the record “shows that the Liberty administrators repeatedly urged Palmer to develop a digital art skillset, and that Palmer was aware of that necessity. Yet Palmer failed to develop the requested skillset.”