Labor & Employment

Federal appeals court makes it easier to assert job bias claims over job transfer requests

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An en banc federal appeals court on Friday lowered the bar for workplace discrimination claims based on job transfers that are forced or rejected.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that employees can sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when job transfers are made or denied because of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The appeals court overruled its prior precedent that said employees can’t sue over job transfers unless they suffered “objectively tangible harm.”

The prior case, Brown v. Brody, is inconsistent with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and its holding has been eroded by subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the D.C. Circuit said.

The ruling creates a circuit split, according to and Reuters, which had coverage of the decision.

The June 3 decision credits two judges as authors of the majority opinion: Judges David S. Tatel and Douglas H. Ginsburg. Their opinion was joined in full by five other judges.

The court ruled for Mary Chambers, who worked in the District of Columbia’s Office of the Attorney General for more than 20 years. At first, she worked as a clerk and then as a support enforcement specialist and investigator.

Because of a high caseload, Chambers sought transfers to several different units in the office, all of which were denied. Yet similarly situated male employees were allowed to transfer, she alleged in her sex discrimination lawsuit.

The federal government had supported Chambers in an amicus brief.

Title VII makes it unlawful to discriminate against any person “with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment” because of that person’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

At issue, the appeals court said, is whether an employer that denies a request for a job transfer because of a protected characteristic discriminates against the employee with respect to the “terms, conditions or privileges of employment.”

“The answer provided by the straightforward meaning of the statute is an emphatic yes, and that answer is fully consistent with Supreme Court precedent,” the D.C. Circuit said.

The majority noted the argument that Chambers must allege more than de minimis harm because the principle is assumed to be incorporated in every statute, absent an indication to the contrary. The majority said the argument didn’t have to be addressed “because the discriminatory denial of a job transfer request, which deprives an employee of an employment opportunity offered to a similarly situated colleague, easily surmounts this bar.”

A partly concurring judge, Judge Justin R. Walker, said the majority’s decision wrongly left open the possibility of bias suits over de minimis injuries. As a result, plaintiffs “will profit from unjustified settlements and expensive trials over the kinds of de minimis slights that Title VII does not cover,” Walkder argued.

Dissenting Judge Gregory G. Katsas argued that the prior requirement for an objectively material injury was consistent with statutory text, Supreme Court precedent “and the bedrock principle that Title VII is not a ‘general civility code’ for the workplace.”

Katsas’ opinion was joined by two other judges.

The case is Chambers v. District of Columbia.

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