Can you bring a lawsuit against your employer for anything they do because of your race, national origin, religion, or gender?
Best Employment Discrimination Lawyer Answer: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the federal law outlawing discrimination in employment based on race/color, religion, gender/sex (including pregnancy and LGBTQ+ status), national origin, age, and disability. So, does Title VII apply to only more serious, or significant acts of discrimination, such as wrongful termination, demotion, or pay cut; or does it also apply to lesser forms of discrimination? At first blush, the answer is easy. Taken literally, Title VII prohibits any form of discrimination in the workplace:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer….to fail or refuse 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. (Emphasis added)
However, until recently, most courts have held that employers will not be liable for treating you differently – even if it is clearly motivated by race discrimination, national origin discrimination, or gender discrimination – unless you can also show that you suffered “objectively tangible harm” as a result of the discrimination. For example, courts have generally held that a discriminatory job transfer will not result in liability under Title VII unless the transfer results in some measurable, tangible, or quantifiable damages. This might mean, for example, that as a result of a discriminatory transfer (or refusal to transfer), you suffer a decrease in your pay, the loss of status or prestige, or the loss of advancement opportunities. As we recently blogged, in Threat v. Cleveland, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that such slights must be “adverse” and “material” to be actionable. (Best Law Read: What Constitutes An Adverse Employment Action Under Title VII?).
Does Title VII require that an employee prove that they suffered tangible harm?
Best Race Discrimination Attorney Answer: Notably, there is nothing within the text of Title VII that requires that a plaintiff show “objectively tangible harm” or even “material” harm as a result of discrimination. Instead, citing the legal maxim “the law cares not for trifles,” courts have tacked-on this requirement as a means of creating some minimal threshold for what kind of conduct is enough to entitle an employee to bring a Title VII “terms and conditions, or privileges of employment,” and what does not.
Most of these decisions have relied on a 1999 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Brown v. Brody, in support of their reasoning. In Brown, the United States Court of Appeals considered whether a discriminatory job transfer violated Title VII and held:
a plaintiff who is made to undertake or who is denied a lateral transfer—that is, one in which she suffers no diminution in pay or benefits—does not suffer an actionable injury unless there are some other materially adverse consequences affecting the terms, conditions, or privileges of her employment or her future employment opportunities such that a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the plaintiff has suffered objectively tangible harm. Mere idiosyncracies of personal preference are not sufficient to state an injury.
However, recently, in Chambers v. District of Columbia, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected this approach, overruling Brown and holding that as a matter of law, job transfers based on discrimination violate Title VII, regardless of whether the transfer is adverse or material, because Title VII means what it says:
By leaving undefined the phrase “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” the Congress “evince[ed] a[n] … intent to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment … in employment. Although the phrase is not without limits—not everything that happens at the workplace affects an employee’s “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment”—the transfer of an employee to a new role, unit, or location undoubtedly is included. Indeed, as the Government aptly says, “it is difficult to imagine a more fundamental term or condition of employment than the position itself.”
The meaning of the term “discriminate” is also straightforward. “Discrimination” refers to “differential treatment.” The unadorned wording of the statute admits of no distinction between “economic” and “non-economic” discrimination or “tangible” and “intangible” discrimination. Nor does the statute distinguish between “subtle” or “overt” discrimination. Rather, Title VII prohibits all discrimination with respect to terms and conditions of employment….Once it has been established that an employer has discriminated against an employee with respect to that employee’s “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” because of a protected characteristic, the analysis is complete. The plain text of Title VII requires no more. Any additional requirement, such as Brown’s demand for “objectively tangible harm,” is a judicial gloss that lacks any textual support. (Emphasis added).
What does “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” mean under Title VII?
Best Gender Discrimination Lawyer Answer: To further make its point that requiring a showing of objectively tangible harm is inconsistent with Title VII’s objective of eliminating all discrimination from the workplace, the Court provided an obvious example of discrimination (involving doughnuts!) that could not survive such a requirement:
Under the “objectively tangible harm” requirement, an employer that denies an employee’s request for a transfer because of the employee’s sex (or race, etc.) would escape liability under Title VII unless the employee could show she suffered an “objectively tangible harm,” even though the denial of the request unquestionably deprived the employee of an equal employment opportunity. Even more perverse, as our amicus conceded at oral argument, an employer that provides doughnuts every week for employees but hangs a “whites only” sign over the doughnuts has not caused an “objectively tangible harm” to non-white employees. That alone shows just how much the atextual requirement of “objectively tangible harm” frustrates Title VII’s purpose of ending discrimination in the workplace.
Addressing arguments that overruling Brown would allow an employee to “make a federal case” out of something as mundane as being transferred from sporting goods to power tools, the court explained that at the end of the day, such a case would still only be viable if based on discrimination:
Of course, an employer remains free to transfer an employee from one department to another for no reason or for any reason at all—any reason, that is, except the employee’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” We disagree… that refusing to let women work in the power tools department because of gender stereotypes, for example, is part of the “minutiae of personnel management” that escapes Title VII’s notice. To the contrary, it is exactly the sort of workplace discrimination Title VII aims to extinguish. [Yet], Brown allows employers to engage in that discrimination with impunity unless an employee can show some additional “objective” harm….In our view, we ought to read Title VII to mean what it says—that it prohibits any “discriminat[ion] against [an] individual with respect to … terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1), even if that that discrimination is “garden-variety.”
Based on the decision in Chambers, is the floodgate now open to any claim for discriminatory treatment in Ohio? Not quite. First, while the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is highly influential, it is only binding in D.C. it is not the appellate court for the circuit Ohio is under, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Second, while being quite clear that Title VII “means what it says,” Chambers’ holding is limited to job transfer situations. Finally, the court was quite clear in its ruling that “we need not decide today whether Title VII includes a de minimis exception 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.”
What can I do if my employer has treated me differently because of my race, national origin, religion, or gender?
Best Religious Discrimination Law Firm Answer: If you are searching “I need a lawyer because I have been wrongfully fired or terminated;” or “I have been discriminated against or harassed based on my …” race, national origin, gender, age, religion or disability; or even think that you might need an employment lawyer, then it would be best to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. Because we know that many clients are not able to afford the costs of litigation upfront, we take on more cases on a contingency fee basis than most firms. Contingency fee agreements mean that the client need not pay any fee for legal services unless and until our employment attorneys recover money and/or results on your Title VII discrimination claim. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?).
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