You’ve probably heard the old (clichéd) saying, “those who cannot do, teach.”

A recent case in the Maryland Court of Appeals disposes of that sentiment rather neatly in favor of those who (allegedly) cannot do, and therefore teach.  Essentially when it comes to youthful academic achievement versus hard-earned experience, an employer can decide which job candidate is the better “fit” without significant concern about age discrimination liability.

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The plaintiff in Dobkin v. University of  Baltimore School of Law is a lawyer who practiced immigration law for many years before he decided to seek an academic position.  The School of Law at UB advertised a search for tenure-track professors for the 2009-2010 school year in several fields, one of which was immigration law.  The plaintiff, Dobkin, applied.

But Dobkin was not interviewed or hired.  Instead, a significantly younger woman with much less practical immigration law work experience was hired.  When Dobkin was informed of the decision, he emailed the school to complain:

It’s simply amazing how law schools choose newbies like [the successful applicant] and don’t even bother to interview candidates with a world of experience.  Something is seriously wrong here.

An EEOC complaint and then a private lawsuit followed.  The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the university.

The Court of Appeals found both that Dobkin presented a prima facie case of age-based employment discrimination and that the university presented evidence of valid, non-discriminatory reasons for its refusal to hire him: that he had no clinical teaching experience, had not graduated from a top-tier law school, and had never worked as a judicial clerk.

At that point, under the McDonnell Douglas classic burden shifting analysis, the burden shifted to Dobkin to prove that the reasons offered by the university for its decision not to hire him were merely pretextual.  No previous Maryland cases concerned similar “failure to hire” scenarios, so the Court reviewed federal and other states’ cases.

The difficulty, the Court noted, is that otherwise qualified candidates may not be hired for a position based on purely subjective determinations about what characteristics make for the “best” candidate.  In one case discussed by the Court, for example, an applicant for a staff attorney job had more experience (and was older) than the candidate who was hired, but came across as arrogant and hadn’t previously worked at a private law firm.  The court in that case refused to substitute its own judgment about which person would be the better hire for the employer’s.  The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed:

We cannot thereby demand or require U.B. to hire applicants with practical experience as opposed to academic training, as it has a right to choose what qualifications address their needs.  [Dobkin] must understand that his and the successful applicant’s qualifications were not equivalent like the applicants in
[another case].   Instead, they were different types of skills and
training.  Accordingly, because qualifications are relative, as it depends on the preference of the employer, we cannot deem appellant’s qualifications as superior than the successful
applicant’s in this case.
The Court’s analysis of pretext in Dobkin will probably weigh heavily in cases alleging other kinds of employment discrimination going forward.  Where an employer’s hiring criteria are facially reasonable, the plaintiff who fails to meet the criteria will face a significant obstacle to proving discrimination.  On the other hand, though, the Court did not consider whether criteria not reasonably related to a position to be filled would justify an adverse employment decision and did not determine what a “reasonably related” analysis – assuming that there should be such an analysis – would entail.  These are important questions, but they will have to await a future decision.