by Koert Wehberg
Not believing the school principal’s story about budget cuts, Williams-Jackson sued the District, alleging that she had been transferred in violation of the Juror Act, a law protecting people from mistreatment by employers for having served jury duty. During the trial that followed, a federal judge found the testimony of Williams-Jackson’s school principal, Cheryl Warley, to be inconsistent. Evidence indicated that signatures on documents from a school committee approving the transfer were forged and that members of the committee had not even participated in the meetings that lead to the reassignment. However, the judge said that she had to follow the Supreme Court’s analysis from a previous case known as Gross v. FBL Financial Services, decided in June of this year.
In Gross, Justice Clarence Thomas held that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) required plaintiffs to prove that they had experienced discrimination because of their age. If there was no direct evidence of discrimination then they would not be able to prove their case. This makes things exceedingly difficult for plaintiffs, especially in an employment situation, where employers have several motivations for demoting or terminating employees.
In the Williams-Jackson case, Judge Collyer compared the text of the Juror Act to that of the ADEA. Where the Juror Act defines discrimination as retaliation “by reason of” jury service, the Supreme Court held that the ADEA required plaintiffs to prove that they experienced discrimination “because of” their age. Since Williams-Jackson did not offer any direct evidence that her jury duty by itself caused her involuntary transfer, she did not succeed in her suit. If people can be reassigned for performing their civic duty or demoted because of their age by failing to circumvent such a high evidentiary burden there is no telling what other protections under anti-discrimination laws hang in the balance.
In the jury duty case, where the mistakes of the school district were made evident, there was no recourse for the plaintiff. Based on Gross’s narrow interpretation of the ADEA, those that want to prove discrimination have a much higher bar, subsequently thwarting the public’s ability to get their discrimination cases into court. The Williams-Jackson case serves to illustrate the transcendence of the Gross ruling, showing that whether it be an issue of civic duty or age discrimination, Gross will continue to have negative consequences on civil rights in the United States.
Koert Wehberg is an Equal Justice Works Fellow and Staff Attorney in the Disability Law Center at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Koert's fellowship focuses on eliminating physical access barriers for low-income people of color with disabilities. Some of these barriers include a lack of ramp access for wheelchair users as well as Braille signage for people who are blind. Koert also works on housing discrimination cases representing people with disabilities who seek accommodations from landlords. Koert graduated from Hamilton College with a BA in English and went on to receive his JD from the Syracuse University College of Law with a certificate in Disability Law and Policy. He is a native New Yorker and enjoys listening to heavy metal in his spare time.