“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.

Harrison involved a black female educator and school administrator who aspired to serve as a superintendent. She sought to attend the Mississippi School Board Association Prospective Superintendent Leadership Academy and alleged in her complaint that her school district had established a precedent of paying for every employee’s fees for the academy after they were admitted. The fees for the academy were $2,000. Prior to applying, Harrison confirmed with a deputy superintendent that the district would pay the $2,000 fee. According to complaint, the deputy superintendent affirmed the district would pay the fee if she was accepted. Harrison then applied and was accepted into the academy. But after she was accepted, the district’s superintendent refused to pay for Harrison to attend the academy at that time. He instead offered to pay for Harrison to attend the academy in two-years time. Because she had already been accepted for the upcoming class, Harrison chose to pay the $2,000 herself. Harrison then filed suit claiming the district violated Title VII and 42 U.S.C. Section 1981 by refusing to pay for the academy fees for her when they had agreed to pay the academy fees for similarly situated white males.

While the District Court dismissed the claim under the old “ultimate employment decision” standard, post-Hamilton, the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal finding that Harrison had alleged discrimination in an “adverse employment decision.” In particular, the Fifth Circuit found that Harrison had pleaded discrimination “with respect to h[er] … terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” The Fifth Circuit stated two reason for this finding: (1) Harrison established “adversity”; and (2) she alleged a “material” or non-de minimis injury.

As to adversity, the Fifth Circuit determined that taking Harrison’s allegations as true, the promise to pay for the superintendent leadership academy was a “privilege” or “benefit” of her employment under Title VII, and the fact that the district had allegedly provided the same benefit to similarly situated white males demonstrated adversity with respect to Harrison.

As to a non-de minimis injury, the Fifth Circuit acknowledged the Supreme Court’s warnings about turning Title VII into a “general civility code for the American workplace,” which means employees must allege “material,” or more than de minimis or injuries to state a Title VII claim. Looking to other circuit analyses of the “materiality” question, the Fifth Circuit was “most persuaded” by the Sixth Circuit’s approach in Threat v. City of Cleveland, 6 F.4th 672, which outlined the “adversity” and “materiality” thresholds for stating discrimination claims while reaffirming that “de minimis means de minimis.”

Turning to Harrison’s allegations in light of this standard, the Fifth Circuit had no difficulty finding that Harrison’s complaint alleged adverse action by the school that caused more than de minimis injury. In particular, it found that Harrison’s personal expenditure of $2,000 was not a de minimis injury, “particularly when that expense was originally promised to be paid by someone else.”

Harrison serves as an important guidepost in the post-Hamilton landscape. For example, we now know that at a minimum, an adverse employment decision that costs an employee at least $2,000 in out-of-pocket expenses will likely clear the “materiality” or de minimis threshold. We also know that promises to pay for trainings, such as superintendent or principal leadership academies, or other certification efforts will likely be found to constitute “privileges” or “benefits” of employment. As a result, school districts and their leadership would be wise to consider their practices and customs with respect to situations where they have traditionally paid for employee trainings and certifications to ensure that they uniformly apply those practices and customs in non-discriminatory ways.

Please stay tuned to our blog for continued developments in post-Hamilton case law, as well as the anticipated decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, where the Supreme Court will likely comment on what kind of workplace injury is sufficient to support a Title VII claim. In the meantime, if you have any questions about Hamilton’s impact, federal or state law discrimination claims, or other employment issues, please contact Stephanie Hamm at shamm@thompsonhorton.com or Adam Rothey at arothey@thompsonhorton.com, or any member of Thompson & Horton’s employment litigation team.