Coach’s age discrimination lawsuit strikes out at 7th Circuit

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In reviewing the comments made to a barber about a newly hired baseball coach, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found the Northern Indiana District Court did not commit an error when the lower court determined the chatter was not an indication of age discrimination in the hiring process.

Joel Reinebold filed an age discrimination lawsuit against Indiana University South Bend, Athletic Director Steve Bruce and Assistant Athletic Director Tom Norris after he was not hired as the school’s head baseball coach in 2017. He asserted he was turned down for the position because he was 56 and Doug Buysse, the man eventually tapped to be the coach, was then 31.

However, the defendants countered it was Reinebold’s poor performance during a phone interview with the search committee. Notes from the interview characterized Reinebold as “(having) no plan to develop kids,” “Thinks it[‘s] a good opportunity but can’t say why,” and “Doesn’t have a well thought philosophy.”

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Bruce and Norris, in part, because Reinebold did not show that he was intentionally treated differently because of his age.

On appeal, Reinebold challenged the district court’s ruling, claiming the lower court impermissibly weighed the testimony of the witness, C.W. a barber with whom Norris had talked about the hiring process.

He cited to Payne v. Pauley, 337 F. 3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2003) which held a district judge “may not make credibility determinations, weigh the evidence or decide which inferences to draw from the facts,” and argued the district court’s analysis of C.W.’s testimony was either a credibility determination or an improper inference from the facts.

Norris had conversed at least twice with his barber about the school’s search for the new head baseball coach. The first time, he discussed the candidates, mentioning each by name. The second time, Norris told C.W. he was excited about hiring Buysse because the new coach was a “young guy and would be a better fit for the kids ….”

C.W. told the court he did not recall Norris making specific comments about the age of the candidates. The barber testified the assistant athletic director “never once just came back and told us he didn’t hire [Reinebold] because he was this age and he was too old or anything, no, he didn’t.”

In a 10-page ruling for Joel M. Reinebold v. Steve Bruch and Tom Norris, 21-1092, the 7th Circuit affirmed.

“The district court correctly concluded that Norris’s comment to his barber that they had hired the ‘younger guy’ was merely a description of the candidate, and could not reasonably be construed as a description of the reason he was hired,” Judge Michael Kanne wrote for the court. “In short, Norris’s comment to C.W. is at best a ‘stray remark’ describing the candidate, not a description of why Buysse was hired over Reinebold.”

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