Sheriff’s Deputy Throws the Kitchen Sink at Employer after Not Getting Promoted and Still Misses

It is not always appropriate for an employer to rely too much on an applicant’s performance during an interview as the deciding factor in determining whether to hire that applicant.  Interviews can be very subjective, and interviewers might be subject to many unconscious biases that impact their objectivity.  However, if interview questions are properly tailored to the sought-after qualifications of the position and focus on finding the best applicant for the job, they can assist in narrowing the field while keeping the process as objective as possible.

Such was the case in Pribyl v. Wright County Sheriff’s Department.  The plaintiff, a female, had 20 years experience as a deputy within the department, and applied for a promotion to the position of sergeant.  As is common in public employment, those who passed the preliminary examination for the position were given the opportunity to present themselves to an interview panel, which eventually provided a list of five candidates to the County Sheriff for his ultimate decision.  After she passed her examination with a score of 86.96%, the plaintiff was shocked to find that after her interview her name was not passed on to the Sheriff as a finalist for the position.  Ultimately, the promotion was awarded to a male applicant who, while having a similar amount of experience in the department, only scored a 52.17% on his minimum qualification examination.

Following the appointment, the plaintiff sued for gender discrimination under three separate theories: Direct Evidence; Indirect Evidence (McDonnell Douglas) and Cat’s-Paw Liability.  Her basis for all three of these theories came from her performance during the interview portion of the hiring process.  Specifically, the plaintiff, like all other candidates, was asked about barriers she faced in the performance of her job (not as a woman, but as a sheriff’s deputy).  To this, the plaintiff, IN A JOB INTERVIEW, responded that she sometimes had trouble going to the bathroom while wearing her duty belt.

This response, along with a number of her other responses, led the interview committee to the conclusion that she was not a top candidate for the job. The plaintiff was not included on any interview panelists’ recommendations.  The Sheriff accepted the recommendations of the panel and ultimately made his hiring decision.

In granting the County’s motion for summary judgment on all three theories, the court found that the plaintiff initially created the issue of gender in the interview process through her answer regarding the use of the bathroom while using her gun belt.  In addition, the court stated that issues in the bathroom while wearing a gun belt were not limited to female deputies.

Regarding the disparity in test scores, the court found that after minimum qualifications were examined, the employer did not rely on test scores at all, and focused on employee performance during interviews.  The Court recognized the Eighth Circuit’s previous holding that “prospective employers are entitled to compare the respective performances of job applicants during interviews.”  Every employee was given the same interview questions, and graded on their response.  Based on this, it was entirely legitimate, and not pretextual, for the employer to consider employees who did not reference using the restroom during their job interviews.

One needs to be careful to avoid the subjective or biased criteria some interviewers utilize to weed out candidates – things like eye contact, accent, volume and “not the right fit” are rationales that, on their own,  that will never hold up to a court’s scrutiny when facing a summary judgment decision.  But having a uniform interview process is always a good idea when attempting to hire the right candidate – it puts all those being interviewed on a level playing field and gauges some of the skills all employees will need to succeed – and it can protect you in case of a lawsuit.

If you need help in tailoring your questions for an interview, feel free to call on the experienced attorneys at the Wiley Law Office.