“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.

So, the Legislature Has Waived Your Governmental Immunity . . . Or Has It?

As political subdivisions of the state, Texas school districts and community colleges are generally immune from claims absent an express legislative waiver. Although certain statutes, including the Texas Whistleblower Act and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”), do contemplate the waiver of governmental immunity, it is important to remember that they do so only to the extent that the plaintiff has asserted a valid claim. This means that a school district or community college sued under these statutes may be able to bring the lawsuit to an early end by filing a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that the plaintiff has not alleged (or cannot prove) the elements of their claim, or that they failed to strictly comply with any statutory prerequisites.

A recent opinion from the Austin Court of Appeals rendered judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s claims in just such a case. Austin Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Anderson, No. 03-21-00286-CV, 2022 WL 3649357 (Tex. App.—Austin, Aug. 25, 2022, no pet. h.).  School districts and community colleges should take note of this opinion for three reasons.