Last month, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a ruling out of the Northern District of Indiana dismissing the Age Discrimination claims stemming from the hiring process for the new head baseball coach for Indiana University South Bend (“IUSB”), in Reinebold v. Bruce, No. 21-1092, 2021 WL 5370122 (7th Cir. Nov. 18, 2021). This ruling came despite documented comments that, at least implicitly, referenced the age of the Plaintiff and the younger individual who was hired instead of him. The case demonstrates the complicated nature of teasing out discriminatory factors from other facts in employment discrimination claims, and the uphill nature of such claims.
In 2017, IUSB, as part of its hiring process, conducted 11 phone interviews of possible candidates for the head baseball coach position. Among these were Joel M. Reinebold, aged 56, and Doug Buysse, aged 31. Buysse eventually got the job, and Reinebold filed suit. Reinebold pointed primarily to three pieces of evidence: that he had more extensive coaching experience than Buysse, that during the phone interview one of the committee members noted that Reinebold was “looking for a retirement job,” and that the Assistant Athletic Director Tom Norris, in a comment to his barber (of all people) had said that he was excited about hiring Buysse because he was a “younger guy and would be a better fit for the kids.”
The court, in addressing these facts and upholding the dismissal of the case, pointed to a number of factors which cut against Reinebold’s claims of discrimination. The first, and arguably most important, was that despite Reinebold’s greater amount of experience than Buysse, their performance in the hiring process itself was not the same. Reinebold argued that, although he and Buysse were similarly situated, Reinebold was judged more harshly due to his age. The Court states that the comparison was true up to a point, and that point was the phone the phone interview. There, while Buysse performed reasonably well, the Court notes that one of the interviewers characterized Reinebold’s interview as “one of the worst interviews he had ever experienced.” Reinebold at 2021 WL 5370122, at *1 (7th Cir. Nov. 18, 2021). Thus, in the Court’s eyes these were not two similarly situated candidates whose only distinguishing feature was their age, but rather one candidate who had a successful interview and moved on in the process, and one candidate whose interview was so bad it immediately ended his consideration.
Of course, a comparison to similarly situated comparators is not the only way to establish discrimination: what about the comments about age? Here, the Court gets into a much more grey area. It points out that Norris never explicitly said anything about age, and that his calling Buysse a “younger guy” was either a benign description of the candidate or a “stray remark” which is not enough to prove a discrimination claim. Similarly, the “looking for a retirement job” comment is merely one comment by one of the phone interviewers among other, much more negative, notes which were not even conceivably connected to Reinebold’s age, such as that the same interviewer thought that Reinebold “Doesn’t have a well thought philosophy” and “Doesn’t know how to deal with professors.” In addition to this, there were four members of the committee present for the phone interview, and they unanimously decided to recommend ending Reinebold’s candidacy after the phone interview—even if that one interviewer was biased in some fashion that wouldn’t explain the other three reaching the same conclusion.
The Court therefore concluded that, taking the full picture into account, these threads were not enough for a jury to reasonably conclude that the reason Reinebold did not get the position was due to his age. It is an undeniably harsh ruling not to let the case go further, however. Discrimination of any type can be a subtle thing, and precedential rulings like this one will only make it more difficult to litigate meritorious cases in the future.
Attorney Travis Dunn