To establish a claim of race, religious, or gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employee must establish that he or she was subjected to an “adverse job action”. Historically, courts have defined an adverse job action as an action affecting the terms and conditions of employment. Adverse job actions include a termination, a failure to hire, a demotion, or the payment of unequal compensation.
In Thompson v. City of Waco Texas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a city police department’s restriction of a detective’s responsibilities after his return to work was sufficient to fall within Title VII’s definition of “adverse action”. The Fifth Circuit’s decision expands the definition of an adverse job action to include actions which do not affect an employee’s title or compensation.
The plaintiff, Allen Thompson, was employed by the City of Waco as a Police Detective. Mr. Thompson is African American. Mr. Thompson and two Caucasian police detectives were suspended following allegations that they had falsified their time sheets. After reinstating all three detectives, the City of Waco imposed restrictions on Mr. Thompson that it did not impose on the two Caucasian detectives. Mr. Thompson was precluded from searching for evidence without supervision, logging in evidence after discovery, acting as a lead investigator, acting as an affiant or evidence officer at a crime scene, and working undercover. Mr. Thompson, however, retained the same job title, pay, and benefits.
Mr. Thompson filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After receiving his right-to-sue letter, Mr. Thompson filed a Complaint against the City of Waco for race discrimination. Mr. Thompson alleged that the restrictions imposed on him stripped him of the “integral and material responsibilities of a detective”, and constituted a demotion. The City of Waco moved to dismiss Mr. Thompson’s claims, arguing Mr. Thompson was not subjected to an adverse employment action.
The Fifth Circuit’s Decision
The Fifth Circuit found the restrictions placed on Mr. Thompson’s job duties were equivalent to a demotion. The court explained that while the mere “loss of some job responsibilities” does not automatically constitute an adverse employment action, it also does not mean a change or loss of some responsibilities can never establish an actionable discrimination claim. The loss of responsibilities may be “so significant and material that it rises to the level of an adverse employment action”. The Fifth Circuit noted Mr. Thompson’s loss of responsibilities effectively rendered him an Assistant Detective rather than a Detective.
The dissenting opinion wrote “the loss of some job responsibilities is insufficient” to establish and adverse employment action. The dissent believed the majority opinion erred “in holding that Thompson’s alleged loss of job responsibilities meets this exacting standard.” “Essentially, under the majority’s notion, even the restriction of job duties may now be deemed a sufficient employment action where the plaintiff merely alleges the restrictions are ‘material.’”
The majority opinion expands the traditional definition of “adverse employment action”. Employers must be cautious about limiting the job duties of employees who have complained about discrimination, because such limitations may be interpreted as adverse actions intended to punish the employee or discourage others from complaining. Even if an employee does not receive a diminution in salary or benefits, the action may be sufficiently “adverse” to support a discrimination claim under Title VII.
If you feel your job responsibilities are being limited or taken away for a discriminatory reason, or in retaliation for complaining about discrimination, contact one of our experienced Cincinnati employment lawyers at Robert A. Klingler Co., L.P.A. to discuss your rights.