Fifth Circuit Decision Increases Employer Liability Under Title VII

August 25, 2023 – Fifth Circuit Decision Increases Employer Liability Under Title VII with Broader Definition of Actionable “Employment Decisions”

The recent en banc ruling in Hamilton v. Dallas County by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has brought a momentous change to a longstanding standard under Title VII. On August 18, 2023, the Fifth Circuit vacated its 1995 ruling in Dollis v. Rubin, which required employees to show that their employer’s illegal adverse actions amounted to “ultimate employment decisions” – encompassing actions such as hiring, granting leave, termination, promotion, and compensation. In cases lacking this adverse employment element of the Title VII claim, employers could readily dismiss the claim for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted.

U.S. Circuit Judge Don Willet, the author of the Hamilton opinion, emphasized that the circuit’s longstanding precedent overlooked a crucial aspect of Title VII. Judge Willet stated that the language of Title VII explicitly prohibits employers from discriminating against employees regarding their employment terms, conditions, or privileges. Judge Willet emphasized that Congress never intended to confine Title VII’s scope to only “ultimate employment decisions.”

Therefore, the new standard in the Fifth Circuit is that a plaintiff only needs to demonstrate discriminatory treatment due to a protected characteristic regarding hiring, firing, compensation, or other “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” The case of Hamilton v. Dallas County involved a lawsuit regarding a sex-based scheduling system for jail guards in the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, which granted full weekends off only to male officers. The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim because changes to an employee’s work schedule, such as denying weekends off, are not an ultimate employment decision. However, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, asserting that the plaintiffs’ allegations amount to an actionable Title VII claim. This court’s rationale was that mandating female officers to work full weekends while exempting their male counterparts qualifies as a tangible, objective, and material instance of sex discrimination in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.

Notably, the court left “for another day the precise level of minimum workplace harm a plaintiff must allege on top of showing discrimination in one’s ‘terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.’” Furthermore, three concurring circuit judges disagreed with the rationale for abandoning the ultimate employment decision standard, finding that the decision lacked clarity in defining which employment terms trigger a Title VII claim. Judge Edith Jones stated that the decision confuses legal professionals, employers, and employees regarding the minimum standard for Title VII liability.

These three concurring judges also pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court’s acceptance of the Muldrow v. St. Louis case, which may reshape Title VII interpretations. This case will determine if a female police sergeant’s lawsuit, claiming discriminatory reassignment based on gender, holds merit. The Supreme Court will scrutinize the Eighth Circuit’s ruling, which held that the officer’s claims were not actionable under Title VII due to the absence of changes in job title, salary, or benefits.

Pending the Supreme Court’s ruling on Muldrow, it is likely that there will be an increase in charges and lawsuits within the Fifth Circuit due to the Hamilton decision broadening the Title VII liability standard.

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