Fire Chief Can Rely On Subjective Qualities Of Candidates For Promotion Without Being Guilty Of Race Discrimination

James Mitchell, an African-American man, is a sergeant with the Muncie, Indiana Fire Department. In 2002, Mitchell applied for a job as the chief arson investigator for the Department. The Fire Chief interviewed each of the three candidates for the job, and ended up selecting Lieutenant Inspector David Miller, who had some experience in the arson investigator position, for the job. Miller is Caucasian. Mitchell sued the City, contending that he was passed over for promotion because of his race. The Appeals Court upheld the City’s position, and dismissed Mitchell’s lawsuit.

At the heart of the Court’s decision was its belief that the Department chose Miller because he was the best qualified individual for the job:

“Miller had experience in arson investigations and worked in the same division as the arson investigator. Miller also filled in for the arson investigator, performing his duties, during the investigator’s time off. Miller’s job duties as lieutenant inspector were oriented toward inspections and investigations, and his promotion to the chief arson investigator’s position was a logical progression. Conversely, Mitchell’s job as sergeant, driving the fire truck, securing the pump, and maintaining the area from the truck to the door, were more oriented toward fire suppression.”

Mitchell argued that the Fire Chief inappropriately took into account his personal experience with Mitchell and Miller. The Court disagreed that the Chief’s consideration of such personal history was inappropriate: “The Chief relied somewhat on his familiarity with certain subjective qualities of Miller and Mitchell, including Miller’s superior knowledge of the job duties, superior attendance record, and higher scores on internal evaluations. Nothing in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prevents a decision maker from relying on his personal knowledge and other subjective criteria in evaluating a job candidate.”

Mitchell v. City of Muncie, 2005 WL 1421744 (S.D.Ind. 2005).

This article appears in the November 2005 issue