In White v. Department of Agriculture, Civil Action No. 11-1763 (D.D.C. 2012), the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that the denial of a detail may constitute an adverse employment action sufficient to support a Title VII discrimination claim.
The plaintiff, Patricia White, was employed as a GS-7 management assistant at USDA. From August to October 2005, the agency detailed White into an administrative officer position and compensated her at the GS-9 level. After her detail ended, White returned to her position as a GS-7 but continued to perform some administrative officer duties while that position remained vacant. Given her additional duties, she requested that the agency provide her with another GS-9 level detail position or other opportunities to advance her career. White also asked to be promoted to the vacant administrative officer position or be allowed to compete for it. White alleged the agency took no action to place her in any other positions, and as a result, she lost opportunities for career advancement, training and future compensation.
In 2010, White filed a formal EEO complaint, and the following year, the EEOC issued a final agency decision denying her claims. White then brought her discrimination claims to the district court, alleging disparate treatment based on race for the agency’s failure to detail her to a GS-9 level position and failure to promote her to the administrative officer position. The agency moved to dismiss White’s failure to detail claim, alleging that an agency’s failure to detail an employee does not constitute an adverse employment action. Established precedent typically requires that a plaintiff show she suffered an adverse employment action in order to bring a disparate treatment claim under Title VII.
An adverse employment action is a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, a reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits. Ordinarily, the denial of a detail is not an adverse employment action. However, the court found that the agency’s denial of White’s request for a detail did constitute an adverse employment action because it “could possibly have affected [her] potential pay, thereby causing a direct, measurable, and immediate effect on [her] compensation, a term of her employment”. Based on White’s past increase in pay during her detail, the court found that her claim that she could have obtained a higher-paying detail was not merely speculative. The court qualified its holding by stating that “allegations that a detail would have provided training, experience and advancement opportunities are too speculative to constitute an adverse employment action.” The court denied the agency’s motion to dismiss White’s failure to detail claim.
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