D.C. Circuit Lessens Burden of Proof for Title VII Job Transfer Claims

Daniel C. Deacon Jun 30

On June 3, 2022, the full court of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned long-standing precedent regarding the burden of proof a plaintiff must carry in pursuing a Title VII Claim.  In Chambers v. District of Columbia (D.C. Cir. 2022), the D. C. Circuit held in a 9-3 en banc decision that when an employer transfers an employee or denies an employee’s request for a transfer because of the employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, the employer violates Title VII by discriminating against the employee in his or her “terms, conditions, or privileges” of employment. The court’s opinion overruled a nearly 24-year old precedent that held the denial or forced acceptance of a job transfer is actionable only if an employee suffers “objectively tangible harm.”  See Brown v. Brody (D.C. Cir. 1999).  The court’s decision could have sweeping effects on Title VII litigation throughout the country, as the diminished burden of proof is significantly more plaintiff-friendly and causes concern for employers when evaluating job transfers and potentially other employment actions.

Background

The plaintiff worked in the Attorney General’s office in the District of Columbia for more than two decades as a clerk, Support Enforcement Specialist, and investigator.  She requested several transfers to other units in the Attorney General’s office after complaining that she had a much larger caseload than her comparators.  All of her transfer requests were denied, and she ultimately filed an EEOC charge and a lawsuit in 2014 alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. 

The district court relied on Brown in granting the District of Columbia’s motion for summary judgement.  On appeal, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit upheld the district court’ ruling.  However, two of the three judges highlighted that Title VII does not make any reference to “objectively tangible harm” and requested the full court to further review the matter. 

The D.C. Circuit, in common with many other federal courts, has long imposed this tangible harm requirement articulated in Brown because of the view that Title VII is not a general “civility code” and that employees challenging discriminatory decisions should show more than de minimis harm lest courts be involved in supervising myriad routine business decisions. However, the en banc panel overruled Brown – holding that the refusal of a transfer request for one employee while granting similar requests to a similarly situated co-worker on the basis of a protected trait is discriminatory because it “deprives the employee of a job opportunity.”Read more of this post

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