“Terms, Conditions, or Privileges”: Fifth Circuit Applies New Hamilton Standard to Find Potential Discrimination in School District’s Failure to Pay for Superintendent Leadership Academy

As mentioned in our prior post about the Fifth Circuit’s August 2023 opinion in Hamilton v. Dallas County, employees no longer must allege discrimination in an “ultimate employment decision” to state a claim under Title VII. Instead, Hamilton established a new standard more closely tied to the statutory language of Title VII that allows employees to state a viable Title VII discrimination claim based on allegations that they faced discrimination in any “adverse employment decision.” Under Title VII, actionable “adverse employment decisions” include discrimination in hiring, firing, compensation, or in the “terms, conditions, or privileges” of employment.

In light of the new Hamilton standard, questions arose as to what kinds of adverse employment decisions would give rise to actionable Title VII claims. In its post-Hamilton case of Harrison v. Brookhaven School District, 82 F.4th 427, the Fifth Circuit provided some guidance as to what constitutes an actionable “term, condition, or privilege” of employment.

The Fifth Circuit Adopts a New Standard for Discrimination Claims and Allows Suits Based on Workplace Actions that Affect the “Terms, Conditions, and Privileges of Employment”

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has broadened the scope of employment actions that may become grounds for an employment discrimination lawsuit and reversed its longstanding precedent that previously required plaintiffs to show they experienced a discriminatory ultimate employment decision, such as being hired, granted leave, discharged, promoted, or compensation issues. On August 18, 2023, the Fifth Circuit issued an en banc decision in the Felesia Hamilton, et al. v. Dallas County case and adopted a new threshold for discrimination lawsuits. The Fifth Circuit will now allow plaintiffs to sue if they claim that discrimination affected the “terms, conditions, and privileges” of their employment. This is a lower threshold than the prior “ultimate employment decision” standard.

The Fifth Circuit noted that “de minimis workplace trifles” are still insufficient to establish a discrimination claim. The Court, however, declined to give lower courts and employers more guidance on the threshold that will now apply in discrimination lawsuits and suggested the standard will be fine-tuned in future decisions. As is, the Fifth Circuit’s decision may lead to an increased number of employment discrimination lawsuits and make it more difficult for employers to obtain dismissal of claims at early stages of litigation.

Are Your Employment Practices Up to Snuff, or Evidence of Pretext?

The factors you rely on to promote or hire one candidate over another may put you at risk of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in decisions related to hiring, firing, promotion, and compensation.  In Watson v. School Board of Franklin Parish, 2023 WL 2054308 (5th Cir. Feb. 16, 2023), the Fifth Circuit found that the reasons proffered by a school district for selecting one candidate over another were unworthy of credence and could be based on race.  Why?  Read more to find out.

 

The Great Pronoun Debate Continues Unresolved!

Last week the Seventh Circuit issued its long-awaited decision in Kluge v. Brownsburg Comm. Sch. Corp., __ F.4th ___, 2023 WL 2821871 (7th Cir. 2023), a case involving a high school music teacher (Kluge) who was terminated (or forced to resign) for refusing to use the gender-preferred names and pronouns of transgender students in his class, which he objected to on religious grounds.