Discriminatory Hiring Suit: Interview Doesn't Prove Qualification

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 12, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Should an employer offer a courtesy interview to an underqualified, current employee who applies to an opening within the company? Probably not based on a recent case in the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The First Circuit rejected a discriminatory hiring appeal from a Plymouth County Sheriff's office employee last week, finding that the district court had properly granted summary judgment for the sheriff's department.

The plaintiff, Joy Goncalves, sued the department for gender, race, and national orientation discrimination after the department denied her applications for four separate promotions in the Plymouth County Sheriff's Department (PCSD). Goncalves' lawsuit focused on allegedly discriminatory hiring practices for two information technology (IT) positions.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals uses the four-part McDonnell-Douglas test to assess discriminatory hiring claims. Under that framework, a plaintiff must prove:

  1. She is a member of a protected class.
  2. She was qualified for the open position.
  3. She was rejected for that position.
  4. Someone holding similar qualifications received the position.

Here, Goncalves could not satisfy the McDonnell-Douglas test. While Goncalves, 49, self-identifies as black, and the applicants who received the jobs were white and younger than Goncalves, the PCSD was able to demonstrate that the other applicants were more qualified.

Matthew Blais, who received one of the jobs in question, had the requisite degree and extensive IT work experience. Britney Johnson, who received the second position, did not have the requisite degree, but she had "very, very strong" Macintosh computer skills and web design abilities that the department desperately needed.

Goncalves, by contrast, had the requisite degree, but testified that her current job did not require computer-related skills, that she had last worked in a computer-related field 11 years earlier in an obsolete, DOS-based system, and that she had never completed a website construction project.

Goncalves, nonetheless, was invited to interview for the position with Blais and Johnson. Blais and Johnson scored higher than Goncalves in the interview and on the practical exam, (which Goncalves did not complete). Goncalves also expressed concerns during the interview process about the work schedule for the IT positions.

Goncalves claimed that she must be a qualified candidate and similarly situated to the selected candidates because she advanced to the interview round. The First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, finding a mere interview insufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact.

Employers who offer interviews to underqualified applicants as a professional courtesy may regret those acts of kindness in court. If you assist clients with employment law claims, remind them that the courtesy interview could give a candidate a false sense of qualification and that the interview alone does not establish qualification under the McDonnell Douglas test.

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