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Federal Court of Appeals Determines Smaller Job Actions May be Discrimination Under Title VII

Federal Court of Appeals Determines Smaller Job Actions May be Discrimination Under Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for employers to “refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual concerning their compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” (because of one’s membership in a protected class). The statutory language “otherwise discriminate against” is quite vague and provides no boundaries for what types of job actions can support a Title VII claim. In Chambers v. District of Columbia, a June 2, 2022 decision in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a full panel analyzed the issue of whether the forced acceptance of a job transfer falls within the purview of the “otherwise discriminate” catch-all in the statute. The court ruled that it did.

The plaintiff in Chambers claimed she had been denied several transfer requests from within her organization, while similar requests by male employees were routinely granted. The employer argued that there could only be discrimination under Title VII if the plaintiff suffered “objectively tangible harm,” which the district court judge agreed with. The Court of Appeals held that where a person suffers “differential treatment” (the plain meaning of discrimination) due to their membership in a protected class (sex here), there is real discrimination whether the impact is economical or not.

Although the court’s ruling was limited to whether a forced job transfer (or denial thereof) could support a Title VII action, this case is likely to be cited in trial courts across the country as precedent for more minor job actions supporting Title VII claims. It may impact the framework of analysis for employers and their decision-making process. For this reason, it is essential to review your EEO policy to ensure it is not limited to compensation and hiring decisions but to all incidents of discrimination, no matter how small.

In the age of employee empowerment and increased knowledge and focus on discrimination issues, it is critical to ensure that your employees know what types of actions are (and are not) employment discrimination. The concept is abstract and is difficult to understand for even the most critical thinking employees (including managers). Therefore, even well-meaning actions can sometimes be the subject of discrimination claims. As the eyes of the judiciary (and regulatory enforcement agencies) focus closer on discrimination than ever before, you must make clear to your workforce that you not only want them educated on this important topic but also are there to listen up to and support all employees when they feel there may be a problem. Some discrimination issues can be remedied without litigation or administrative action, but the key is identifying and rectifying them before it gets to that point.

Syntrio has recently released a suite of courses to educate all employees on discrimination and the need to eliminate it. Our courseware is keyed into the concept of cultural improvement, the apparent ties to diversity, equity, inclusion, and the overall idea of workplace fairness and employee well-being. We welcome the opportunity to share our new courses with you and partner with your organization in the development of a program that meets your needs in this critical area, as well as other vital cultural issues such as harassment, DE&I, a civil and respectful workplace, health and safety issues (Including mental health) and aspirational topics that can improve your employee’s lives and performance such as mindfulness in the workplace. Contact one of our account executives to explore our communication tools and offerings further.

Since 2007, Jonathan has practiced labor and employment law on behalf of management. Jonathan focuses his practice on advising employers on the prevention of harassment and discrimination issues, with an emphasis on providing in-person harassment training programs to companies of all sizes. Jonathan is licensed in California, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and maintains a national advice practice.

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