United States: Court Rejects The EEOC's Novel Attempt To Impose Disparate Treatment Liability Without Any Injury

In EEOC v. Autozone, Inc., Case No. 14-CV-5579 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 4, 2015), Judge Amy St. Eve of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant and against the EEOC in a case in which the EEOC brought a disparate treatment discrimination suit on behalf of an individual who did not suffer an adverse employment action as a result of alleged discrimination.

This decision is an important victory for employers, as it represents a rejection of the EEOC's novel theory that an employer can be liable for limiting, segregating, or classifying employees in a purportedly discriminatory way even absent any adverse employment action. In addition, the Court rejected the EEOC's theory that an alleged discriminatory transfer is per se an adverse employment action.

Case Background

Kevin Stuckey ("Stuckey"), an African-American, was employed by AutoZone from January 2008 to July 2012. Id. at 1-2. During this period, Stuckey was transferred four times to different AutoZone locations. Id. In each such transfer, Stuckey was placed in the same position and had the same job duties and rate of pay that he had at his prior location. Id.

After Stuckey was transferred for the fourth time, Stuckey refused to report to his new location, and instead filed an EEOC charge on August 13, 2012, claiming he was transferred to the new location due to his race. Id. at 2. According to Stuckey, he was transferred out of the third AutoZone location where he worked because AutoZone's district manager wanted to make the third location "predominantly Hispanic." Id. at 2-3. The EEOC thereafter filed a disparate treatment suit on Stuckey's behalf. AutoZone moved for summary judgment, arguing that, because Stuckey did not suffer an adverse employment action as a result of his transfer, he did not have a claim for disparate treatment discrimination.

The Court's Decision

The Court began by pointing out that Title VII makes two types of racial discrimination unlawful. Id. at 4. First, under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1), it is unlawful to refuse to hire, to discharge, or to discriminate against individuals with respect to compensation or other terms of employment on the basis of race. Id. Second, under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(2), it is unlawful "'to limit, segregate, or classify . . . employees . . . in any way which would deprive . . . any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee'" on the basis of race. Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(2)).

After pointing out that disparate treatment claims brought under Title VII generally require a plaintiff to prove that he or she suffered an adverse employment action, the Court addressed the EEOC's argument that there is no need for an adverse employment action to maintain a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(2). Id. at 4-5.

The Court first indicated that the Seventh Circuit has consistently required an adverse employment action in § 2000e-2(a)(2) cases. Id. at 5-6. It then addressed the EEOC's argument that, in Kyles v. J.K. Guardian Sec. Serv., Inc., 222 F.3d 289 (7th Cir. 2000), the Seventh Circuit held that a defendant could be liable under  § 2000e-2(a)(2) even in the absence of an adverse employment action. In Kyles, the Seventh Circuit held that employment discrimination "testers" – individuals who, without an intent to accept an offer of employment, pose as job applicants in order to gather evidence of discriminatory hiring practices – had standing to sue under Title VII, even though they were not genuinely interested in the employment they were denied.  Id. at 6-7. The Court reasoned that the holding of Kyles was that a plaintiff has standing to bring suit for a statutory violation if he or she suffers an injury contemplated by the statute even if a plaintiff was not harmed apart from the statutory violation. Id. at 7. It thus held that Kyles did not support the EEOC's position. The Court thereby concluded that an adverse employment action is required in § 2000e-2(a)(2) cases.

The Court also considered the EEOC's argument that Stuckey had suffered an adverse employment action in that he "suffered dignitary harm and humiliation because AutoZone maintained a racially segregated workplace." Id. at 9. While agreeing that a materially adverse employment action could include an action that subjected an employee to "an objectively humiliating or degrading workplace," the Court could not find any reason that transfer to another AutoZone location "resulted in an objectively humiliating or degrading change in work conditions." Id. at 9-10. The Court thus granted summary judgment to Autozone.

Implications For Employers

This case represents a significant win for employers. The Court rejected the EEOC's attempt to create liability for disparate treatment discrimination under § 2000e-2(a)(2) of Title VII without any proof of an adverse employment action.  Moreover, the Court found that an allegedly discriminatory transfer does not automatically create an objectively humiliating or degrading workplace and thus is not necessarily an adverse employment action.  Despite this setback, we expect the EEOC to continue its attempts to create new Title VII liability using novel and untested theories.  Stay tuned.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Gerald L. Maatman Jr.
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