US District Judge Phyllis Hamilton.
US District Judge Phyllis Hamilton. (Photo: Jason Doiy.)

A federal judge has dismissed a discrimination lawsuit brought against the University of California Hastings College of the Law by a staffer who was laid off in 2012 as the school slimmed down to adjust to declining applications.

Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled on March 13 that plaintiff Sara Viteri-Butler hadn’t offered sufficient evidence that the law school laid her off because of her age, race, pending eye surgery or pension eligibility.

Hamilton granted Hastings’ motion for summary judgment on each of Viteri-Butler’s claims following a hearing on Jan. 22, ruling that Viteri-Butler hadn’t shown that her position was later filled by a younger worker.

“We definitely are going to appeal,” said Spencer Smith, one of the attorneys at San Francisco-based firm Smith Patten who represents Viteri-Butler. “The ruling is completely wrong. They used the reduction in force to get rid of older people.”

Attorney Dow Patten said Hamilton ignored key evidence, including that the law school actually did hire younger people following the layoffs and did not actually cut spending. Patten and Smith represent a second Hastings employee laid off under similar circumstances. That case is in the discovery phase.

Viteri-Butler had worked at Hastings for more than 27 years when her position as an office assistant in the financial aid department was eliminated in March 2012. Hastings at the time was reducing the size of its student body and cutting more than $1 million from law school salaries, according to the opinion. Viteri-Butler, then 54, was one 18 staff members either eliminated or reduced to part-time under dean Frank Wu’s strategic plan to shrink the student body by 25 percent and reduce administrative staff.

Viteri-Butler sued in May 2012, alleging she was targeted because of her age, Peruvian-American background, history of glaucoma and need for future surgeries that would require her to take medical leave.

She claimed that the law school violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act by interfering with her right to receive pension benefits. Hamilton dismissed that claim, ruling that the act does not cover government employee pensions.

“Hastings asserts that to the extent that the court determines that plaintiff has met the elements of the prima facie case, Hastings has articulated a legitimate business reason for the layoff—the need to reduce the size of its J.D. class, and the concomitant need to reduce its staff salary budget—and plaintiff has no evidence showing that the decision to downsize was motivated by some discriminatory motive,” Hamilton wrote.

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