The threshold for establishing a Title VII discrimination claim is a showing that a claimant was subjected to an “adverse employment action,” a term generally defined as an action by an employer that affects the terms and conditions of employment. Examples include termination, failure to hire, demotion, or unequal compensation.
Plaintiff, an African American detective, and two Caucasian detectives were suspended for allegedly falsifying their time sheets. When the detectives were reinstated, the employer allegedly placed restrictions on plaintiff that it did not impose on the Caucasian detectives. For example, plaintiff was precluded from searching for evidence without supervision; logging evidence in after discovery; acting as a lead investigator; being an affiant in a criminal case; acting as evidence officer at a crime scene; and working undercover. Plaintiff’s job title, salary and benefits, however, were not reduced.
In his Title VII discrimination lawsuit, plaintiff alleged that his job description had been rewritten to the extent that he was functioning as an assistant to the other detectives, rather than as a true detective in his own right. He claimed that he had lost essential job functions, that he no longer could use his education and skills to act as a detective, and that these circumstances were materially adverse. In other words, as plaintiff put it, his new responsibilities were “significantly different” from his prior responsibilities, less prestigious, less interesting, and less likely to lead to promotion.
The employer moved successfully in a federal trial court to dismiss plaintiff’s suit, arguing that plaintiff had failed to plead that he had suffered an “adverse employment action” necessary to support a Title VII discrimination claim. That decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals in New Orleans in Thompson v. City of Waco, 2014 U.S. LEXIS 17089 (5th Cir. 2014). The appeals court ruled that while the mere “loss of some job responsibilities” does not automatically constitute an adverse employment action, that does not mean that a change or loss of some responsibilities can never establish an actionable discrimination claim. The circumstances in this case, the court found, reflected changes that were materially adverse to plaintiff, so that plaintiff had therefore stated a “plausible claim that he was subject to the equivalent of a demotion.” (Emphasis added)
The takeaway is that changing the terms and conditions of employment sufficiently to alter the basic nature of the job may be sufficiently “adverse” to support a Title VII discrimination claim, even though the salary or benefits associated with the job are not diminished.