Court says U.S. workplace bias law covers unwanted transfers

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A view of the judge's chair in court room. Picture taken February 3, 2012. REUTERS/Chip East

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  • Workers who sue over transfers don't have to show harm, court says
  • Court overrules 1999 decision followed by other appeals courts
  • Dissent says ruling will spur lawsuits over "petty slights"

(Reuters) - A divided U.S. appeals court on Friday ruled that employers can violate the federal law banning workplace bias by transferring workers or denying transfer requests for discriminatory reasons, even if it does not lower their pay or cause other harm.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a 7-4 decision said any differential treatment based on sex, race or other protected traits amounts to discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, regardless of the ultimate impact it has on employees' working conditions.

The court revived a lawsuit by Mary Chambers, a former investigator for the District of Columbia Attorney General's office who claims her numerous requests for lateral transfers to different divisions were denied while similar requests from male colleagues were granted.

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The decision overrules the D.C. Circuit's 1999 ruling in Brown v. Brody, which said workers who sue for discrimination after they are transferred, or their transfer request is denied, must show an “objectively tangible harm.”

At least four other federal appeals courts subsequently followed Brown, and Friday's ruling creates a circuit split. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the issue in a 2020 case.

David Branch, a lawyer for Chambers, in an email said, "This is a monumental victory for employees facing discriminatory job transfers in the workplace."

A spokeswoman for the D.C. Attorney General's office declined to comment.

Chambers was backed by the Trump-era U.S. Department of Justice, which filed a brief in 2020 arguing that the Brown decision misconstrued Title VII.

The D.C. Circuit agreed on Friday, saying the law broadly prohibits discrimination with respect to "compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment," and that no requirement to show harm exists in the law.

Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas wrote for the dissent that showing a material injury is not a high bar and discourages meritless Title VII lawsuits.

Katsas said Friday's ruling will likely be applied beyond the context of transfers and trigger a flood of lawsuits based on “petty slights or minor annoyances that often take place at work and that all employees experience.”

The case is Chambers v. District of Columbia, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, No. 19-7098.

For Chambers: Brian Wolfman of Georgetown University Law Center; David Branch of the Law Office of David A. Branch and Associates

For the District of Columbia: Caroline Van Zile of the D.C. Attorney General's office

Court-appointed amicus: Zachary Schauf of Jenner & Block

For the U.S. Department of Justice: Anna Baldwin

(NOTE: This article has been updated to include a comment from David Branch and to reflect that the District of Columbia Attorney General's office declined to comment.)

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.