In Roberts v. Columbia College Chicago, Joseph Roberts, a college professor filed a federal lawsuit against his former employer arising from his termination. According to Columbia College, Professor Roberts plagiarized several chapters in a textbook deemed to be an egregious violation of academic integrity standards. Roberts alleged that Columbia’s termination of his employment constituted unlawful age discrimination.
As we have reported before, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) makes it unlawful for an employer to refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against an individual “because of such individual’s age.” The ADEA’s protection extends to individuals who are 40 years of age or older.
Here, the provost of Columbia of College had the authority to terminate tenured faculty members. After being informed of the suspected plagiarism, the provost conducted her own investigation and decided to terminate Professor Roberts on that basis.
In order to prove his claim of age discrimination, Professor Roberts was required to produce evidence of discrimination under the direct or indirect method of proof. Roberts chose to prove his claim using the direct method of proof. This method required him to present a direct admission from Columbia College that he was fired for age discriminatory reasons or show a “convincing mosaic” of circumstantial evidence that reveals a discriminatory reason (age) behind his termination. Additionally, Roberts also had to show that age was a “but-for” cause of the employment action. In other words, but for Roberts’ age, he would not have otherwise been terminated.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately found that Professor Roberts failed to establish any ADEA claim and affirmed summary judgment in favor of Columbia College. In the end, Roberts failed to show either that the relevant decision-maker (provost) had age animosity towards him or that the individual supplying information to the provost (who Roberts claimed had age animosity towards him) provided the provost with inaccurate information about Roberts’ conduct. Further, Roberts put forth no evidence to demonstrate that “other similarly-situated professors” were treated more favorably.