Wednesday, January 22, 2014

6th Circuit Holds Voluntary Transfer Can Constitute Adverse Employment Action

Last week the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of an employer holding that transferring an employee to another position constituted an adverse employment action, despite the fact that the employee requested the transfer.  

As you may have guessed, this case contains fairly unique facts.  The plaintiff applied for a job transfer to an Equipment and Facilities Superintendent position in November 2008 because he viewed the new position would provide better potential for career advancement. The posting for the open position described the working conditions as “primarily in the office and in garage where there is exposure to loud noises and diesel fumes.” However, the plaintiff did not receive the position and complained to his supervisors about not getting the position, but the individual who did left the position shortly thereafter. In 2009, the plaintiff was finally transferred to the Equipment and Facilities Superintendent position.  

Shortly after his transfer to the new position he thought had better career advancement potential, he began to complain about the diesel fumes and alleges suffered from bronchitis and sinus headaches.  A few days after a meeting involving disagreement over the redesign of a truck, the plaintiff was hospitalized for five days, which he attributed to work-induced stress and a stress-related mental breakdown. The plaintiff then took eight month’s leave under FMLA. When he was cleared to return to work by his psychiatrist, the plaintiff learned he had been terminated for exhausting all his leave.

After his termination the plaintiff filed suit alleging race, national origin, and age discrimination. He asserted the job transfer was an adverse employment action and he was set up to fail. The District Court disagreed and granted the defendant summary judgment because it determined that transferring an employee to a position the employee applied for was not an adverse action.

In reversing the district court, the 6th Circuit noted that generally reassignments without changes in salary, benefits, or title usually do not constitute an adverse employment action. The 6th Circuit noted, however, that a job transfer may qualify as an adverse employment action where it amounts to a constructive discharge. In order for an employee to be constructively discharged, the working conditions must be objectively intolerable to a reasonable person. The 6th Circuit took it a step further and determined that a job “transfer may constitute a materially adverse employment, even in the absence of a demotion or pay decrease, so long as the particular circumstances present give rise to some level of objective intolerability,” which the plaintiff showed in this case.

The case is Deleon et al. v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission et al., Case No. 12-2377 (6th Cir., Jan. 14, 2014).

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