Employers sometimes erroneously assume that employees working under a set-term employment contract don’t have any rights once the contract expires. That’s simply not true. In fact, refusing to entertain a contract renewal for a discriminatory reason can be the basis for an employee’s lawsuit.
Recent case: Margaret Leibowitz worked as a professor for Cornell University under the terms of a series of five-year employment contracts. When her latest contract was about to expire, the university dean refused to reappoint her or sign a contract for an additional five-year period.
She sued, alleging age and sex discrimination.
Cornell argued that employees whose contracts have expired have no inherent right to be considered for a new contract.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It said that discrimination laws protect job applicants from discrimination. It would make no sense, the court reasoned, for applicants to be protected, but for current employees with expiring contracts not to be protected. It sent the case back for trial. Leibowitz will now have to prove that the dean refused to renew her contract because of her age or sex. (Leibowitz v. Cornell University, No. 07-4567, 2nd Cir., 2009)
Final note: Cornell also argued that it hadn’t renewed several contracts because of budget problems. But it turned out that many of those whose contracts weren’t renewed were women over age 50—while the university managed to find the money to hire 12 new professors, including much younger men.
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