In a June 3 decision that impacts D.C. employers, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overruled its own precedent, holding that discriminatory job transfers are actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court held that where an employer denies an employee’s request for a job transfer because of the employee’s sex, race, color, religion, or national origin, the employer has discriminated against the employee with respect to the “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”
This decision overrules the Court’s 1999 ruling in Brown v. Brody, where it held that that the forced acceptance or denial of a job transfer is actionable under Title VII only if the employee suffered “objectively tangible harm.” Now, D.C. employees will be protected against all discrimination under Title VII that is plainly within the Title.
This new precedent comes after D.C. Attorney General’s office employee, Mary Chambers, brought suit against the District of Columbia. Ms. Chambers served as a clerk and later as a Support Enforcement Specialist and investigator, having worked in the office for more than twenty years. Chambers claimed that her employer denied her repeated requests for a transfer to a different unit despite granting similar requests of male employees. As a result, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge and eventually brought this lawsuit, alleging that she experienced discrimination and retaliation on the basis of sex.
The core Title VII inquiry, which applies to employers in both the private and public sectors that have more than 15 employees, is whether an employer has discriminated against an employee based on a protected characteristic. An employer has discriminated against an employee when it has “fail[ed] or refuse[d] to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin…”
What does this mean for D.C. employers, and what actions should they take?
The Court’s decision in Chambers made clear that refusing a transfer request for one employee while granting a similar request of a similarly situated employee on the basis of a protected characteristic is discriminatory because it “deprives the employee of a job opportunity.”
In light of the Chambers decision, when an employee requests a job transfer, the employer must consider any potential disadvantage to the employee in denying that request. If the employer chooses to deny the request, it is critical that the employer document the legitimate non-discriminatory business reason for doing so to avoid a potential claim against it.
It should be noted, however, that the Chambers’ decision has posed the question as to whether the recent ruling applies to other employment actions such as the denial of awards or training opportunities, or the assignment of specific work shifts. While Title VII does not cover all employer decisions that make an employee unhappy, Chambers may raise the possibility of other potentially discriminatory employment actions being covered.
General Counsel, P.C. would like to thank Kristian Loomis, Esq. for her assistance researching and writing this article. For additional information, please contact General Counsel, P.C. or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about our employment law practice, you can contact Merritt Green at email@example.com.