EXETER – Federal judge ruled there was “insufficient evidence” to convince jury that former Cooperative Middle School student aid advisor Margaret Walker was fired after 18 years of service due to age discrimination.
Judge Steven McAuliffe allowed a motion for summary judgment filed Nov. 1 on behalf of SAU 16, Superintendent David Ryan and former director of Cooperative Middle School Patty Wons in the US District Court of New Hampshire.
The ruling ends the bitter dispute in federal court between the school district and Walker, who claims she was fired in 2018 and replaced by a younger person, 29, for lower pay and who had ” roughly equivalent qualifications “.
Walker filed a lawsuit against SAU 16 in 2019 seeking $ 1 million in damages, including lost wages and retirement, claiming she was fired on October 5, 2018, in violation of federal law. age discrimination in employment and the New Hampshire anti-discrimination law.
SAU 16 has denied accusations that Walker was an “at will” employee, meaning the district could terminate her contract at any time and without cause.
McAuliffe said in his ruling that the only evidence Walker presented that could relate to age discrimination is an email sent by the school district announcing Walker’s departure.
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In the email, the district said it had “understood that we need to start by meeting the needs of our students in a more contemporary way.”
“The letter probably did not comment on Walker’s age, and it is unlikely that reading parents would have thought that a single descriptor was meant to be a code for ‘Walker was fired because she was too old’,” writes McAuliffe.
“Even assuming that the use of the word ‘contemporary’ was meant to be an affront to Walker’s ‘outdated’ approach to working with students, it can only be taken as that, an affront to Walker’s approach. to do her job, but not necessarily for her age. ”
“Problematic” approach to work cited by administrators
Judge said “undisputed evidence” showed Ryan intended to cut Walker’s job at the end of the 2018-19 school year to bring in a certified social worker to “better meet the needs of students “.
However, McAuliffe noted, testimonies showed the plan was rushed due to personnel issues.
Ryan said in her testimony that Wons raised issues with Walker’s boundary issues with the administration, causing a stir with faculty, and that she had become “problematic in terms of working against the administration of the school with some on initiatives or instructional work they were trying to put in place. “
“The personnel issues that Wons raised were just reasons to move faster; these issues led Ryan to terminate Walker’s contract earlier than originally planned, but these issues were all issues of performance, attitude or performance. compatibility – no signs of animosity based on age, ”McAuliffe wrote.
The judge dismissed claims that Ryan de Wons’ request to document Walker’s staff issues after she was fired raises a question about the real reason she was fired. The judge noted that she did not explain why Ryan’s claim “was suspect and that she offered no legal support for that argument.”
The judge also dismissed allegations that the school social worker and student aid counselor had “roughly equivalent professional qualifications.”
Walker claims in her lawsuit that she was qualified to fill the role of social worker, but was never asked for anything, nor was she told about the new position.
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Walker, according to her testimony, was a school social worker certified by the state Department of Education between 2005 and 2008 and could have renewed the certification if asked.
The judge noted that the district required the school’s social worker to have a master’s degree in social work for the position, which Walker did not have.
The judge also characterized Walker’s assertion that SAU 16 behaves in a manner consistent with age discrimination as “undeveloped”. While Walker testified that 10 of the 15 teachers or staff who have not been renewed since 2015, McAuliffe noted that the evidence suggests they have resigned, which is why their contracts were not renewed.
Walker, he said, “offers minimal information about these employees, beyond their age, dates of hire and positions.”
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“Based on this record, a reasonable trier of fact could not, in law, conclude that Walker was the victim of unlawful age discrimination by the defendants,” McAuliffe wrote.
The judge chose not to rule on Walker’s claims that his dismissal violated New Hampshire’s discrimination law.
The decision comes as the case was due to go to trial on November 9 after attempts to settle the case had stopped, according to court documents. Walker’s last offer to settle with SAU 16 was $ 721,000, while SAU 16’s counter-offer was $ 3,500 plus $ 24,000 for his retirement.