In October, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed in Laird v. Fairfax County, Virginia, that an employee voluntarily accepting a lateral transfer to another position (there, to settle a disability discrimination claim) may not be able to establish discrimination or retaliation just because the new job is not all she had hoped.
To make out a viable claim, the employee must suffer an “adverse employment action” such that the transfer resulted in “a significant detriment” to the employee. Whether an employee’s dissatisfaction rises to the level of “significant detriment” is a factual issue determined on a case-by-case basis.
A transfer must cause a “significant detriment” to be actionable
After working in the new position for some months, Ms. Laird came to believe she had been demoted. She found her new position “boring” and to be a “thinkless job, just data entry,” and hurt her potential for future promotion.
She sued the County for discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal trial judge in Alexandria entered judgment against her, finding her disappointment, however genuine, was not significant enough to establish a significant detriment.
After reviewing all facts anew, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Offering no real guidance on what establishes a “significant detriment,” the Court of Appeals discussed what does not. In her new job, Ms. Laird received the same compensation, asked for and received changes to the new title and duties, and received additional accommodations of her disability.
The Court noted near the end of its opinion that she had abandoned her argument that intolerable discriminatory conditions in her original job had compelled her to accept a transfer—in essence that she was forced to accept a demotion. Having waived that argument, she could no longer claim that the transfer itself had been discriminatory or retaliatory.
A transfer that is not “voluntary” may be a “constructive demotion”
Had she not abandoned her “constructive demotion” argument, Ms. Laird may have prevailed by claiming acceptance of the transfer had not been “voluntary.”
The majority did not address that potential, but a member of the three-judge panel did in a concurrence. Observing that the DC Circuit (and every other circuit court of appeals to address the issue) has recognized constructive demotion claims, and noting that this circuit already has recognized claims for “constructive discharge” (for employee left with no option but to resign), the concurrence concluded: “Logic dictates that if a demotion can constitute a constructive discharge, then a constructive demotion can similarly constitute a constructive demotion.”
Thus, as in DC, an employee who can allege a work experience so intolerable as to leave no option but to accept a transfer likely will have a viable claim for constructive demotion claim in MD and VA.
Making a lateral transfer of a (current or potential) disability claimant to settle claims of discrimination and/or retaliation may not be an easy panacea. The transfer must be both “voluntary” and it not trade one “significant detriment” (discrimination or retaliation) for another (a significantly inferior position).