A recent ruling by the federal appeals court shows employers in the sports industry the value of documenting conversations and notes taken during the hiring process – and serves as a critical warning of how easily an innocent (but unfortunate) comment can be taken out of context in its downfall a lawsuit. The decision of the 7th District Court of Appeal in Reinebold v. Bruce dated Nov. 18 upheld the dismissal of an age discrimination lawsuit filed by an applicant for the position of senior baseball coach at a university, based on the good notes the staff made during the interview. What can your organization learn from the decision, and how can you avoid the potential misstep that almost came back to bite the team?

Hiring managers made solid notes on rejected baseball coach candidates

In 2017, Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) was looking for a new head baseball coach. Of the 94 applications received, 56-year-old Joel Reinebold and 31-year-old Doug Buysse were two of eleven candidates selected for a telephone interview in the first round.

Four members of the eight-person recruitment committee interviewed Reinebold over the phone. Sporting director Steve Bruce and assistant sporting director Tom Norris were on the committee. Each member was unimpressed. One member even stated that it was the worst interview he has had. Another panel member wrote the following comments during Reinebold’s interview: “Don’t know how to deal with professors”; “Has no plan to develop children”; “Thinks it’s a good opportunity, but can’t tell why”; and “Doesn’t have a well-thought-out philosophy.”

Responding to her impression that Reinebold was looking for time off at this stage in his career, one of the members of the recruitment committee wrote that he believed Reinebold was “looking for a retirement job.” It was this innocent comment that raised a red flag on the street and could have caused trouble for IUSB.

Ultimately, the committee members unanimously agreed that they would not extend a face-to-face conversation with Reinebold. Buysse, on the other hand, impressed the committee members. They gave him a face-to-face interview and later offered him the position of head coach. Buysse is now in his fourth season as coach of the IUSB Titans.

Rejected candidate is rejected by the appeals court

In 2018, Reinebold sued IUSB, Bruce and Norris for age discrimination under various federal laws. After some initial legal maneuvers, the only allegations that survived were age-discrimination allegations against Bruce and Norris. The two remaining defendants alleged that Reinebold had failed to show that he was deliberately treated differently from other similarly situated candidates (such as Buysse) or because of his age. The lower court agreed with these arguments and dismissed the case, and after Reinebold appealed, the appellate court confirmed the 7th improvements could be made.

Strike one

First, the Seventh District recognized that both Reinebold and Buysse were treated equally until the candidates were interviewed by phone. They both applied for the same position, both qualified for the position, and both received telephone interviews. Reinebold argues that he must have been discriminated against because he was “objectively better qualified for the job than Buysse”. But only after the telephone interviews between the two candidates are they no longer positioned in a similar way due to their respective appearances.

Hit two

Second, the Seventh Circuit found that Norris’ barber’s testimony was insufficient to convince the court to revive the appeal. During the hiring process, Norris spoke to his hairdresser several times about IUSB’s search for a new baseball head coach. When Buysse was hired, Norris told his hairdresser that he was excited to hire Buysse because he was a “younger guy” and “would suit the kids better …” However, at no point did Norris mention that he didn’t Hire Reinebold because of his age.

Foul Tip Strike Three

Regarding the note “Looking for a retirement job” left by the recruitment committee member, the court ruled that the note was simply a “stray remark” made along with a number of other notes directly related to Reinebold’s performance during the interview . If anything, it was a description of Reinebold, not his age. Neither the records themselves nor the statements of the member himself showed that Reinebold’s age played a role in the decision to hire. There was also no evidence that the member shared his notes with other committee members. Therefore, the court ruled that “these notes indicate the reason Reinebold was eliminated as a candidate after his telephone interview,” not evidence of age bias by the recruitment committee.

Exercise Notes

This case provides valuable insights into the value of the documentation and notes on the formal and informal conversations that were held during the hiring process for employers in the sports industry. Written records created at the same time as events during the recruitment process are worth gold if the recruitment decision is later challenged by a court. You will remind the court of key decision-makers at the time of critical decisions and will be able to provide solid evidence that there were job-related and non-discriminatory reasons for the hiring (and non-hiring) decisions.

However, such advice does not come without warning. It is not recommended to document every thought or opinion that comes to your mind during the hiring process. As seen in this case, the committee member’s statement “looking for a retirement job” could easily have been misinterpreted by the court. It was raised as a potential problem by Reinebold, and a more liberal court might have assumed that the committee member took into account Reinebold’s age when hiring. Although the Seventh Court dismissed such an argument as “purely speculative” in this case, it is important to train your hiring managers to only take objective notes during the hiring process to avoid eyebrow raising and avoiding anything to document what may be problems related to protected classes. Let your hiring managers ponder how their comments could be misinterpreted by a court that will review them at a later date.