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Employer didn’t concede worker’s qualifications

An unsuccessful applicant for a promotion could not hold her employer liable under a theory that the employer impliedly admitted she was qualified by allowing her to advance to the interview and exam stages of the process, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has found.

The plaintiff applicant argued that because she advanced through the selection process, the defendant employer all but admitted she was similarly situated to the subsequently hired individuals.

But the 1st Circuit disagreed and affirmed an award of summary judgment for the employer.

“That the [employer] in an abundance of caution let her application advance does not make [the employee] qualified,” Judge Juan R. Torruella wrote for the unanimous panel. “Where the record shows that an employee was in fact differently situated from other candidates, we cannot rely on ‘overly attenuated inferences, unsupported conclusions, and rank speculation’ to quiet the tolling of the summary judgment bell.”

The 14-page decision is Goncalves v. Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department.

The plaintiff was represented by Mitchell J. Notis of Brookline, Mass. William P. Breen Jr. of Boston argued on behalf of the defendant.

Hiring process

Plaintiff Joy Goncalves, a 49-year-old Cape Verdean, began working for the defendant Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department, or PCSD, in Massachusetts as a budget administrator in February 2001.

The plaintiff applied for the information technology positions of systems analyst/programmer and database administrator in February 2008. Among the qualifications required for the positions were that the applicant hold an associate’s degree in a computer-related field and have three years of relevant work experience.

Additionally, the positions “required three or more years as an intranet/internet/user interface developer with experience developing database-driven intranet/internet applications using IIS, MTX, COM, ASP, SQL Server (version 7.0 or higher), Access, Visual Basic, Visual InterDev, and JavaScript,” as U.S. District Court Judge George A. O’Toole in Boston found.

The defendant interviewed nine applicants for the IT positions, including the plaintiff and two white applicants, Britney Johnson and Matthew Blais. Two critical stages in the hiring process were an interview with a panel and a practical exam that was designed to evaluate the candidates’ IT knowledge.

Following the interview process, the defendant selected Goncalves, Johnson and Blais, along with two additional candidates, to take the practical exam. Blais received the highest score (18 points out of a possible 24); Johnson, one of the top three scores (15 points out of 24); and the plaintiff, one of the lowest scores (10 points out of 24).

On reviewing the candidates’ qualifications and overall performance, the defendant hired Johnson for the systems analyst/programmer position and Blais for the database administrator position.

The plaintiff responded with a complaint in federal court alleging that the defendant unlawfully discriminated against her when it denied her a promotion.

O’Toole ruled in the defendant’s favor, finding that the plaintiff had not shown she was qualified for the IT positions and similarly situated to the hired candidates.

Dissimilar situations

On appeal, the 1st Circuit agreed that the plaintiff was not qualified for either position she sought.

“The IT Positions required extensive computer knowledge and experience that Goncalves, aside from possessing the requisite degree, admitted to lacking,” Torruella said.

The plaintiff maintained that, because she advanced to the interview and exam stages of the hiring process, the employer effectively conceded that she was qualified for the IT jobs.

“The PCSD made no such admission,” Torruella replied.

“It admittedly is confusing why PCSD permitted Goncalves to proceed through the selection process if she clearly lacked the programming skills and relevant work experience the IT Department specifically sought,” he said. “Nevertheless, ‘[o]ur role is not to second-guess the business decisions of an employer.’”

The plaintiff also asserted that because she advanced through the selection process, the defendant “all but admitted she was similarly situated to the subsequently hired individuals, and that because Johnson had credentials that Goncalves lacked and vice versa, the two must have been similarly situated.”

But the 1st Circuit was unconvinced.

“Such arguments are not sufficient for purposes of establishing a genuine issue of material fact,” Torruella said. “Goncalves has not adverted to any IT programming, web design skills, or work experience on her part that comparably matched Blais or Johnson’s background, nor has she compellingly contested her consistently lower performance throughout the hiring process.”

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