Appeals Court Affirms Dismissal of Retaliation Lawsuit

Mary Norsworthy sued her employer Houston Independent School District (“HISD”) for retaliation and age discrimination. The district court dismissed Norsworthy’s complaint for failing to state a claim. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.

Norsworthy’s lawsuit brought three categories of claims. The first was a retaliation claim pursuant to Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), and Section 21.055 of the Texas Labor Code. To state a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must show (1) she was engaged in a protected activity; (2) she was subjected to an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and adverse employment action.

According to the court of appeals, the lawsuit offered no specifics about the forms of retaliation, harassment, taunting, and badgering to which Norsworthy was allegedly subjected.  The suit also failed to allege facts showing a causal link between any alleged protected activities (such as filing grievances) and the alleged adverse actions. Without such allegations, she could not proceed with a claim under Title VII.

The standards under the ADEA and Texas law are substantially similar. There were no facts alleged to suggest that those responsible for hiring decisions knew about grievances Norsworthy allegedly filed. Claims that the district failed to promote her were temporally remote from the alleged protected activity, “underscoring the thinness of the causal link,” stated the court.

Norsworthy next alleged an age discrimination claim pursuant to the ADEA and Section 21.051 of the Texas Labor Code. To establish a prima facie case of age discrimination Norsworthy had to allege she (1) was a member of the protected class (forty years of age or older); (2) was qualified for the position at issue; (3) suffered a final, adverse employment action; and (4) was either replaced by someone outside the protected class or otherwise treated less favorably than others who were similarly situated but outside the protected class.

The court of appeals agreed with the district court that Norsworthy did not allege sufficient facts for this claim. For example, the lawsuit offered nothing about Norsworthy’s qualifications for the promotions. It also provided little to nothing about what the positions actually were and what the ages and qualifications were of those who were given promotions. The suit also offered insufficient detail about what positions Norsworthy applied for and when she applied for them.

The woman’s Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) claim also failed to allege sufficient facts. For example, the complaint offered no specifics or context about Norsworthy’s alleged demotion and transfer to a lower rank station a week after inquiring about taking FMLA leave because of her COVID diagnosis. Having failed to allege facts supporting a causal link between any FMLA protected activity and adverse action, Norsworthy’s claims failed for the same reasons as her other retaliation claims. The court of appeals affirmed dismissal of the suit. The case is Norsworthy v. Houston ISD, 22-20586 (June 13, 2023).

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