“Split Decision” On Reverse Discrimination Lawsuits Issued by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals
Nov 2, 2022
On October 18 and 19, 2022, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers federal complaints filed in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) issued two different decisions involving “reverse discrimination” lawsuits. In a decision involving the City of Springfield, Illinois, the Court found in favor of the applicant who claimed she was denied a promotion because of her race, white. Runkel v. City of Springfield. In contrast, in a discrimination lawsuit filed by a White employee against the South Bend Community School Corporation, the Court rejected the employee’s claim that he was denied a promotion because of race. Groves v. South Bend Community School Corp. Although the Court’s legal analysis was the same in both cases, as usual, the different facts and evidence resulted in different results.
In South Bend Community School Corp., employee William Groves complained that he applied for a District-wide Athletic Director position, but was not hired. Groves claims that the only reason he was not hired was his race, White, arguing that he was vastly more experienced than the Black applicant selected.. The Court disagreed, stating, “In the end, Grove’s case suffered from a failure of proof – he alleged a theory and account of reverse discrimination but ultimately never backed it up with enough evidence to allow a jury to find in his favor.” Importantly, the Court noted that while Groves may have looked more qualified on paper than the selected candidate, the evidence indicates that his interview did not go well at all. Interviews matter said the Court, and the selected candidate “outperformed Groves by a long shot.” Additionally, the South Bend School Superintendent appropriately considered prior instances of noncompliance with athletic regulations under Groves’ watch in making his selection. As such, the Court upheld the lower court’s ruling in favor of South Bend Community School Corp., finding that Groves lacked evidence to support his theory that his race, White, was the reason he did not receive the position.
Contrast Groves with the City of Springfield case decided one day earlier. Here the Court, found that a White employee applicant’s reverse discrimination claim should be allowed to go to a jury, overruling the lower court’s decision granting summary judgment for the City. In the City of Springfield, the Plaintiff, Diane Runkel, worked as the City’s assistant purchasing agent, and applied for, but was denied a promotion to the vacant City purchasing agent position. In reaching its decision, the Court found that the City gave inconsistent and conflicting reasons for promoting a Black employee over Kunkel. The Court found that the City’s response to Runkle’s earlier EEOC Charge over her rejection for the position, conflicts with their evidence on several key points in the lawsuit. “[T]he inconsistencies in the evidence permit the inference that the City’s non-discriminatory explanations for promoting Wilkins are dishonest, in turn allowing a reasonable jury to infer the City’s true purpose was intentional race discrimination.” The Court also noted direct evidence in the record that race admittedly played a factor in the Mayor’s decision to hire the Black employee. Therefore, the Court reversed the lower court’s ruling and sent the case back for further proceedings on the Plaintiff’s complaint.
The Court’s decisions confirm the continuing validity of “reverse discrimination” employment claims and Title VII’s protection of all races, including Whites, from discrimination. Also of note is the City of Springfield’s argument that its decision was, in part, predicated on the need for diversity. However, the City’s evidence was inconsistent and its reliance on diversity needs to bolster its decision was looked upon with skepticism by the Court absent sufficient evidence in the record that this decision was based upon a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan. Using race as a factor in hiring or promotion is challenging enough for employers and even more so if not based on a properly documented DEI plan supported by compelling governmental interests limited in scope. Finally, the Court’s decision in South Bend Community School Corp. reminds employers that they can rely upon how well an applicant performs during a hiring interview. An applicant who looks great on paper can lose her advantage if she is outperformed in the interview.