What is Job 'Fractioning' and Why Should You Care?
Posted: May 4, 2023
An important new court ruling says that "employers may not circumvent Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) protections by 'fractioning' an employee's job."
Let us explain what the court meant by job "fractioning" in the context of the case — and why it is important for employers to understand the idea.
Carolyn Spears became a full-time faculty member at Louisiana College in 1977 and was tenured in 1984.
Although she technically retired in 2007, she continued to teach under the title of "senior professor." She signed annual contracts while she did so.
Spears was diagnosed as having cancer in 2012, and in 2016 she began a period of long-term disability and sick leave.
She says she had no plans to retire permanently at that point, but the college's head of HR said Spears told her she was not coming back.
In connection with a reorganization, the college demoted Spears and reduced her salary for the 2017-18 academic year. In Spears' mind, it was all part of a campaign to get her to leave.
Before the academic year started, the college told Spears that it was "mov[ing] in a different direction" and would not be renewing her contract after all. The letter delivering that news was sent just a week after Spears filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and Spears said it was retaliatory.
In a move that turned out to be crucial to the court's eventual ruling in the case, the college hired a young couple to take over Spears' job duties. The courses she taught ultimately were spread out among several different people.
Spears sued, asserting a litany of claims including age discrimination, gender discrimination, disability discrimination, breach of contract and retaliation.
At the trial court, the college filed a motion for summary judgment as to all the claims Spears raised against it. Spears sought partial summary judgment.
Trial court backs school
The trial court sided with the college, and the case (Spears v. Louisiana College) reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for further review.
First, the appeals court tackled Spears' claim of age discrimination.
It explained that with respect to that claim, Spears — because she relied on circumstantial evidence, had to show that she was:
- at least 40 years old
- qualified for her job
- subjected to an adverse job action
- replaced by someone younger (or treated worse than similarly situated younger employees).
The district court ruled against her on this claim because it decided that Spears did not show she was replaced by someone who was younger. It reasoned that Spears was not really "replaced" because the courses she taught were assigned to several different people.
Spears objected to this reasoning, arguing to the appeals court that it was wrong to say she was not "replaced" just because her former job duties were assumed by more than one person.
The appeals court agreed.
What is job fractioning?
An employer cannot successfully defend a claim of age discrimination by "fractioning" an employee's job, it ruled.
So the fact that Spears' job duties were divided among several different people — or "fractioned" — did not mean she was not "replaced" under the applicable test, the court explained.
That meant Spears established a preliminary case of unlawful age bias, shifting the burden to the college to offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision.
The college said Spears herself told her she would not be coming back, but Spears disputed that assertion. Further development on this question was needed, the appeals court said. Thus, the appeals court revived the age bias allegation.
The same reasoning applied to Spears' claim of sex discrimination, the appeals court decided.
Spears also established a preliminary case of disability discrimination, the appeals court added. It was undisputed that she had cancer, that she was qualified for her job, and that the college's president told her that her contract was not renewed "because she was too ill to teach."
The court also revived Spears' retaliation claim, although it affirmed the decision to reject the breach of contract assertion.
The lesson for employers: Redistributing a departed employee's job duties among several other employees is not likely, by itself, to save you from a claim of unlawful discrimination.
Posted In: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)
Want to know more? Read the full article by Tom D'Agostino at HR Morning