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Seventh Circuit Finds for School District in Employee “Reverse Race Discrimination” Claim

Education K-12 Education

Recently, the Seventh Circuit—the circuit court governing Illinois—upheld a lower court’s judgment in favor of a school district defending against two reverse race discrimination claims brought by a longtime District employee. The Seventh Circuit reviewed the District Court’s determination that there was insufficient evidence to find that the school district discriminated against the plaintiff-employee due to his race (White) when it filled a position he applied for with an applicant who is Black. This case is illustrative of a court’s analysis of “reverse race discrimination” claims under Title VII.  

In Groves v. South Bend Community School Corporation, the plaintiff, William Groves, applied for a new role as Corporation Director of Athletics in the school district where he was currently employed as a high school Athletic Director. Ultimately, another internal applicant, Seabe Gavin, who is Black, was offered the position over Groves. Following the appointment of Gavin as the Corporation Director of Athletics, the school district created a new position involving dual Dean and Director of Athletics roles for each of the district’s high schools. Groves applied for the role; however, Gavin was again chosen to fill the position. In response, Groves sued the school district, alleging that he was more qualified than Gavin and was the victim of unlawful discrimination and retaliation. Groves asserted that the Superintendent, who is Black, hired another Black man for the role, thereby victimizing Groves, a White man, through a theory of “reverse race discrimination” and retaliated against Groves for bringing the instant litigation. The school district filed for summary judgment, which the District Court granted, reasoning that Groves failed to provide any proof to establish that race was a factor in either of the district’s hiring decisions. Groves appealed, specifically challenging the rulings unfavorable to his race discrimination claims.  

Groves argued that the District’s reasoning for not hiring him—his poor interview, which involved Groves gloating that he previously fired several coaches, as well as the Superintendent’s concerns about Groves’ relationship with the IHSAA due to previous issues of noncompliance as Athletic Director—was false and pretext for discrimination based on his race. To support this argument, Groves first argued that the District disregarded its background check policy and hired Gavin, despite him having a criminal record. The Court rejected this argument, reasoning that the policy applied to external hires and not to employees advancing internally within the school district.  Indeed, the Court found Groves failed to offer any examples of the district applying this policy to current employees. Groves also asserted that he was “more qualified” for the sought-after positions than Gavin. However, the only evidence of his qualifications that Groves offered was his resume, which the Court did not find determinative, particularly in light of the superintendent and principal’s interview evaluations of the candidates. Without any other evidence, the Court concluded nothing in the record suggested that Groves was not hired based on his race.  

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision, finding in favor of the school district. In coming to its decision, the Court determined that Groves failed to demonstrate a sufficient showing of race discrimination because he failed to meet his burden of connecting his race to the adverse action of not being hired.  Specifically, the Court found that Groves’ arguments regarding the District’s application of the background check policy and his qualifications fell short of the evidentiary requirement. It found his argument regarding the background check policy was based only on speculation, and his argument regarding his qualifications was supported only a side-by-side comparison of his resume compared to Gavin’s. By contrast, Gavin—the individual hired for the position—performed significantly stronger during the interviews, a factor that the Court found “greatly mattered.”  The Court further found the gap in the candidates’ qualifications on paper had narrowed during the consideration of the second position, further rebutting Groves’ contention that he was the most qualified candidate. Therefore, the Court ultimately found Groves’ claims unconvincing and noted that his case “suffered from a failure of proof.” 

The decision of the Seventh Circuit demonstrates the importance of evidentiary support in the context of reverse race discrimination.  Importantly, plaintiffs asserting such a claim bear the burden of proving not only that the behavior was discriminatory, but that any non-discriminatory reason the defendant provides is merely a pretext for the discriminatory action. In this case, the plaintiff fell short of this burden.  

*Also authored by Brittany Begley, a third-year law student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, is a Loyola Education Practicum Student at Franczek P.C. The Practicum, part of Loyola’s education law curriculum, was created to provide law students with practical experience at education law firms and organizations. Students receive academic credit for their Practicum experience.