White high school athletic director loses ‘reverse race discrimination’ case in federal court

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A former South Bend high school athletic director claiming “reverse race discrimination” has lost on his claims that he was discriminated and retaliated against when he didn’t receive job offers for positions he applied for within the school corporation.

Denying a motion for oral argument filed by William “Bill” Groves, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division, also granted summary judgment to the school corporation in William Groves v. South Bend Community School Corporation, 3:18-CV-979.

Groves, a white male, started working and coaching at Clay High School during the 1991-1992 school year. He took on more advanced academic, administrative and athletic positions over time, becoming dean of students at Clay in 2001, student management director at Clay in 2004 and athletic director at Adams High School in 2007.

During the 2016-17 school year, the South Bend Community School Corporation announced it was going to be losing its corporation director of athletics. Groves applied for the CDA job and was one of four candidates interviewed by then-Superintendent Kenneth Spells, a Black man, in 2017.

Another candidate Spells interviewed was Seabe Gavin, who had been employed by SBCSC since 2002 and had worked as a substitute teacher, student manager, administrative assistant, in-school suspension coordinator, teacher and coach during his time with the corporation. Spells used the same set of questions in each interview and would later recommend Gavin, who is also Black, for the position to the school board.

According to Spells, he chose Gavin over the other candidates because Gavin “interviewed well, gave Dr. Spells the impression he could help ensure SBCSC had a good relationship with the (Indiana High School Athletic Association) after a stretch of time where the relationship had been strained, gave good answers about helping students get into college, and was active and visible in the community.”

In turning down Groves, Spells said he didn’t choose him in part because he “interviewed poorly. Mr. Groves brought up money, his past firing of coaches as an athletic director, and his desire to have total control over SBCSC athletics if given the CDA job, none of which sat well with Dr. Spells. Dr. Spells also cited Mr. Groves’s past issues with IHSAA compliance and sloppy paperwork during his time as an athletic director as reasons he did not recommend” him.

After learning he wasn’t selected for the CDA job, Groves in November 2017 filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging the decision to hire Gavin was racially motivated. The EEOC issued a dismissal and notice of rights in September 2018, and Groves filed his original complaint with the Indiana Northern District that December.

While this case was pending, Groves faced more employment issues at SBCSC.

In March 2019, SBCSC announced it was going to restructure by eliminating the CDA and individual high school athletic director positions in favor of a new, hybrid position of dean of students/athletics at four of the SBCSC high schools. The idea to make the change was formed when Spells was still superintendent but was implemented when Todd Cummings, a new superintendent, took control.

The restructuring left both Groves and Gavin without jobs. The corporation’s plan was to allow any employees whose positions had been eliminated as part of the restructuring to apply for the new positions.

SBCSC put together a committee to interview nine candidates who were selected to interview for the four new positions. Groves and Gavin applied and received offers to interview.

Each high school principal was ultimately responsible for deciding who they would recommend to the board to fill the positions at his own school. Groves was not chosen, with Adams’ principal citing a lack of an administrative license as the reason. But Gavin was selected by Riley High School, where he would become the dean of students/athletics full time.

After finding out he didn’t receive a position, Groves filed a second charge of discrimination with the EEOC in August 2019.

In ruling against Groves, the Indiana Northern District used the McDonnell Douglas framework.

On the CDA job, the court found there was sufficient evidence as to why Gavin was chosen over Groves and that there wasn’t “an extreme difference in qualifications.”

The court also found that while the school corporation failed to adhere to its own policies by not conducting background checks when hiring new candidates who were already in the system, that failure didn’t make a difference in the case.

“Mr. Groves has not presented any evidence tying SBCSC’s hiring decision to race, connecting the failure to run a background check to discriminatory motives, or showing Dr. Spells lied about his decision-making,” Chief Judge Jon E. DeGuilio opined.

Groves also failed on his second complaint about the dean job, as the court found the elimination of his position was part of a corporation-wide restricting process.

“The two superintendents involved in the restructuring, Dr. Spells and Dr. Cummings, clearly stated the restructuring decision was financially motivated and never mentioned race as a factor,” DeGuilio wrote. “… Further undermining Mr. Groves’s allegation is the fact that of the four athletic director positions that were eliminated, three had been held by white candidates and one had been held by a black candidate. That suggests Mr. Groves was not treated less fairly than other similarly situated individuals.”

Finally, DeGuilio determined there wasn’t evidence to show retaliation was a factor in either hiring decision.

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