Court finds for Calumet in age discrimination suit

CALUMET — A federal court has ruled against a plaintiff suing the village for alleged civil rights violations, a controversy that began in the summer of 2016.

On May 17, 2017, Lake Linden resident Joel Dobis filed the suit in United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan, alleging the village discriminated against him in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) when it terminated him from his position as the village’s Police Chief and hired a younger candidate during the second round of hiring for that position.

The Village Council in July hired Dobis as chief of police to begin on Nov. 15, 2016, but then learned he was not certified by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement (MCOLE) standards at the time of his hiring. The General Law Village Act states when a police officers is hired, he must be certified by MCOLE.

On Jan. 17, 2017, the council, which was then composed largely of newly elected trustees, voted 5-2 to terminate Dobis’s contract, and begin another search for a police chief, because Dobis lacked the proper certification at the time he was hired.

After conducting a second search and interviewing two candidates, Dobis and Keith Anderson, the council selected Anderson, who was significantly younger than Dobis.

Dobis claimed both his termination and hiring Anderson were based on unlawful age discrimination, according to court records.

The court ruled Dobis failed to present direct evidence of age discrimination.

Direct evidence proves the existence of a fact without the need for inferences, the court record stated. To constitute direct evidence of discrimination, the age-related statement or remark must be made by a decision maker responsible for the adverse employment decision or by someone, such as a supervisor, who had input into or influenced the decision.

Trustee Sandy Johnson was alleged to have made such comments.

According to the court records, statements made by Village Council President Dave Geisler to the council that it could not consider age in making the hiring decision are not direct evidence of age discrimination.

“Dobis cites no case for the proposition that such statements can be considered direct evidence of age discrimination,” the court found. “Although Dobis suggests that President Geisler’s comments were in response to age-related comments by one or more trustees, he cites no evidence to support such claim. In fact, Geisler testified that he told the trustees about protected classes several times and explained that they could not be used for employment decisions.”

The court disagreed with Dobis’s claim the village could not show its termination decision was based in fact, because the village lacked the foundation to say whether the hiring was illegal, and the village relied on inadmissible hearsay to prove its point.

Whether or not his hiring was illegal is irrelevant, the court ruled, because it was undisputed that Dobis was not MCOLE certified at the time he was hired, court records state.

“Under these circumstances, the honest belief rule applies: ‘Where the employer can demonstrate an honest belief in its proffered reason … the inference of pretext is not warranted,’ the record states.

“Under the honest belief rule, an employer’s proffered reason is considered honestly held where the employer can establish (that) it reasonably relied on particular facts that were before it at the time the decision was made.”

Dobis, the court decided, offered no basis to conclude that village’s legal assessment was incorrect.