Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Rejects Reverse Discrimination Claim

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently rejected a claim of reverse discrimination brought by a professor against Northern Illinois University. In Rahn v. Board of Trustees of Northern Illinois University, Greg Rahn, a visiting professor at NIU alleged that he was passed over for a tenure-track position because he was white. In upholding the district court’s decision granting summary judgment to NIU, the Seventh Circuit found that Rahn did not present evidence of direct discrimination. Additionally, the court found that Rahn failed to show that NIU’s selection process was pretext for discrimination and failed to present any evidence that he was more qualified than the candidate selected by NIU to fill the tenure-track position.

Rahn was hired as a visiting professor by NIU for the 2006-2007 school year. That same school year, his wife, Regina, was hired for a tenure-track position in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Later in the year, a tenure-track position opened up in that department, and Rahn applied for the position along with eighty-one other applicants.

NIU formed a search committee, which included Rahn’s wife, to winnow down the number of applicants. The search committee voted on the qualifications of the applicants to select ten applicants for a phone interview. Rahn received three votes, one from his wife, which placed him in the top ten and qualified him for a phone interview. Within a few days of the meeting held to vote on the candidates, Promod Vohra, the dean of the College of Engineering called an emergency meeting for the purpose of removing Regina Rahn from the search committee based on the conflict of interest created by having the wife of one of the applicants on the search committee. Vohra also allegedly stated during the emergency meeting that he would not hire a white man into the engineering department if a qualified minority applicant was available.

Following the meeting, the search committee, which did not include Vohra, created a rubric for evaluating the applicants’ qualifications and then reevaluated the applicants using the rubric. Rahn did not make it to the telephone interview based on the search committee’s assessment of his qualifications under the rubric. The committee forwarded a final list of candidates to Vohra who made the final decision to hire Dr. Gary Chen, who was not white. Rahn filed an EEOC charge and then a suit in federal court claiming that he was passed over for the tenure-track position because he was white.

The federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of NIU on Rahn’s reverse discrimination claim, finding that Rahn had failed to present evidence that he was not selected for the tenure-track position because he was white. Additionally, the court found that Rahn failed to rebut NIU’s evidence that Dr. Chen was the more qualified applicant.

On appeal, Rahn argued that Vohra’s alleged statement that he would not hire a white man if a qualified minority candidate was available was sufficient evidence of direct racial discrimination to entitle him to a trial. The Seventh Circuit, however, found that this alleged statement did not support Rahn’s discrimination claim because Vohra was not a member of the search committee and was not involved in the selection process that disqualified Rahn. Additionally, the court found that Rahn failed to present any evidence that the rubric used to evaluate candidates for the position was pretext for racial discrimination because the rubric was directly related to the qualifications for the position. Finally, the court found that Rahn failed to even address NIU’s defense that Dr. Chen was a more qualified applicant.

This case is a good illustration of how courts examine the criteria employers use when making personnel decisions. Rahn was unable to discredit the rubric utilized by NIU to narrow down its list of candidates because NIU was able to demonstrate that the rubric was connected to the legitimate job qualifications of the position. Additionally, the fact that Vohra, the ultimate decision-maker, was not involved in the initial screening process insulated NIU from Rahn’s claim that Vohra’s alleged discriminatory statement was evidence that he was not selected based on his race. Had Vohra been involved in the screening process, this case may have turned out differently.

Contact Vanessa Clohessy or Chris Hoffmann with your questions about this case or defending against allegations of employment discrimination.

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