Educational degrees are a legitimate requirement for numerous jobs and claims of employment discrimination because an unsuccessful candidate who is in a protected class yet did not have the required educational degree will fail when the employer can prove that requirement was not a mere pretext for discrimination. Such was as in the April 18, 2013 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit of Christine Johnson v. University of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is part of the First Circuit which also includes Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and, therefore, decisions from the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit are valuable legal precedents for New Hampshire and Massachusetts employers and employees alike.
Christine Johnson worked for several years serving as a graphic instructor in the Department of Engineering under temporary service contracts and in 2009 was denied a tenure track position in the engineering department at the University. A requirement for the tenure track position was a Ph.D. and there were three positions available. Three other candidates received the available tenure track positions, all of whom had Ph.D. degrees. Johnson did not have a Ph.D. and had not accepted the University’s offer to pay for her to get one, but instead claimed a Ph.D. requirement is a pretext to hide the University’s gender and national origin discrimination. Of the three individuals that were hired for the tenure track positions, one was a woman, and two were of foreign nationalities (one Columbian and one Spaniard). The trial Court entered summary judgment against Johnson and in favor of the University finding there was no genuine issue of fact to that the Ph.D. was a pretext for gender or national origin discrimination and, therefore, Johnson could not go to a trial with her employment discrimination claims.
The Court of Appeals agreed. The Court noted that a Ph.D. requirement helps to promote teaching of the most up-to-date scholarship to students, provides prestige to the University, helps to compete with other Universities around the globe, is required for the University to be a Ph.D. granting institution, and helps the University obtain funding since research professors with doctorate degrees are basically the University’s main source of research funding. Johnson responded to that saying that the doctoral degree requirement was motivated purely by economic reasons. The Court noted that even though the University provided substantial evidence to the contrary, her argument was meritless because courts will not sit as super-personnel departments assessing the merits– or even the rationality — of employers’ non-discrimination business decisions.
This decision can be considered for a variety of other business such as high-tech companies requiring a Ph.D. in certain engineering positions, or a company requiring certain business executives to have an M.B.A. As long as that degree requirement has non-discriminatory rationale for it, the business can have educational degree requirements. That being said, employers attempting to require a high school degree or G.E.D, for general labor positions such farm help or some basic assembly line work, may cause a disparate impact on a protected class and the employer considering imposing an educational degree requirement that cannot be legitimately tied to the functions of the job should discuss the legal propriety of that requirement with its employment attorney.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].