A veteran Texas employee trained to perform a higher-level
job watched her long-awaited promotion go to a considerably younger colleague.
The global chemical company that employed them both had two reasons for choosing
the younger woman, which it said were legitimate and unbiased. But judges
weren't so sure.
What happened. Hazel
Conner joined Celanese Ltd. in 1977, working there for nearly 30 years before
she retired. In 2001, the company needed to downsize, so an early retirement
package was offered and some departments were dissolved. Connor's boss, the
company's environmental chemist, accepted the offer. Celanese decided to
reorganize her duties, distributing them among three other employees rather
than replacing her. One of the new positions was titled environmental
specialist--a higher level with better working hours than Conner's lab
The position was given to an employee 11 years younger than
Conner, who had to be trained for 9 months before she could begin to perform
her responsibilities. And, she still often needed Conner's help and advice,
because she had no lab experience. Conner sued under the Age Discrimination in
Employment Act (ADEA), but a judge in federal district court accepted Celanese's
reasons for promoting the other woman and dismissed Conner's charge. She
appealed to the 5th Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
What the court said. Celanese managers testified that one reason for promoting the younger woman was
that she would have lost her job entirely otherwise, because her old
department, traffic, was being shut down. The second reason, they asserted, was
that Conner's department was shrinking, and her experience and expertise in her
lab analyst job were crucial to retain, and that she had no experience in
traffic. But other testimony revealed that even though the younger woman had
come from the traffic department, she needed a special training course in
traffic duties after her long training in laboratory tasks. Had Celanese
promoted Conner, lab training would not have been necessary, and she, too,
could have taken the traffic course.
Appellate judges therefore ruled that because Conner was so
clearly better qualified for the new job, a jury could find that she experienced
age discrimination. So her case will go back to the lower court for trial. Conner
v. Celanese, U.S. Court of Appeals for the
5th Circuit, No. 05-41487 (11/29/06).
Point to remember: It's possible that Celanese managers were not biased against Conner because of
her age. But they may be found liable anyway, because for whatever reasons,
they rejected a better-qualified candidate for promotion.