The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is sending the case of Deleon v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission to trial, ruling the plaintiff can proceed with suing the county for an adverse employment action motivated by discrimination—after being granted the very job transfer he had previously sought.
According to the suit:
In 2008, Kalamazoo County employee Robert Deleon applied for an internal transfer to the position of equipment and facilities superintendent. According to the job description, the role entailed working primarily in an office as well as a “garage where there is exposure to loud noises and diesel fumes.”
Initially passed over for the job, Deleon was involuntarily transferred into the position when it became available again in 2009. He subsequently sued the county, claiming the transfer was a retaliatory adverse employment action, in addition to alleging the working conditions in his new job led to him developing bronchitis as well as a cough and sinus headaches due to the aforementioned diesel fumes.
According to Kalamazoo County, Deleon never withdrew his initial request for the transfer, and did not complain at the time he received it.
In its ruling, however, the appeals court found Deleon had provided sufficient evidence that he was exposed to toxic and hazardous diesel fumes on a daily basis, and that his work environment was “objectively intolerable.” The court also noted that Deleon applied for the position under the impression the move would include a $10,000 raise; a raise he never received, advancing the argument that his transfer was involuntary.
The case is “a classic example” of the challenges employers face in defending against discrimination claims, says Joel S. Barras, a Philadelphia-based partner in Reed Smith’s labor and employment practice.
Employers often spend tens of thousands of dollars in these cases, “which typically involve disproving a negative,” he says. “[It’s] no wonder there’s a cottage industry of plaintiffs’ lawyers who indiscriminately file claims against ‘deep-pocket’ employers, which only serve to detract focus from the cases of actual discrimination and retaliation.”
Nevertheless, this particular decision holds a valuable lesson for employers and HR, says Barras.
“The takeaway … is to always go the extra step, even if the outcome seems obvious.
“Common sense alone may not guarantee summary judgment,” he continues, advising employers in similar situations to ask the applicant if he or she still wants the job, clearly describe the working conditions, and make sure the candidate truly understands what the job entails.
There is a direct correlation between the amount of time and effort HR professionals expend on the front [end] of employment decisions and the chances for getting discrimination and retaliation suits dismissed quickly and relatively inexpensively.”