Employers are free to create reasonable rules for submitting job applications and make potential employees follow those rules. As long as your rules aren’t enforced in a way that favors one group of applicants over others, courts will let you reject an applicant for failing to follow those rules.
Recent case: David Johnson, who is black, applied for a job as a firefighter with the city of Denton. He passed the civil service exam and was given a “Personal History Statement” to complete.
The form required applicants to sign the document authorizing the release of application information. It also required the signature of someone else who had witnessed the applicant completing the form. Johnson turned in his form without a witness signature.
The fire department rejected Johnson because his paperwork lacked the signature and told him he would have to reapply.
Instead, Johnson filed a federal lawsuit claiming race discrimination, pointing out that he would have been the city’s first black firefighter. He tried to expand his lawsuit to include all other similarly situated applicants, too—in this case, all black applicants turned down for Denton firefighter jobs.
The city objected, pointing out that it applied the witness signature requirement to all applicants, regardless of race.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down Johnson’s case. It explained that employers can set reasonable application rules. In this case, the rule was reasonable and enforced against all applicants, leading the court to conclude there was no evidence of any form of discrimination. (Johnson, et al., v. City of Denton, No. 09-40266, 5th Cir., 2009)
Final note: This case serves as a warning—there may be applicants out there looking for a class-action lawsuit. Make sure your hiring practices are colorblind.
- Don't let employees guess about being fired
- Use good notes to shoot down retaliation suits
- Where there's smoke, there's fire ... or, in some cases, no hire
- First suggestion needn't be last word: You're free to choose reasonable accommodation
- Job description should spell out employee's exempt or hourly status