Black worker asks U.S. Supreme Court to decide scope of Title VII

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their race with respect to their “terms” and “conditions” of employment. David Peterson, a former employee of Linear Controls, Inc., an electrical and mechanical services company, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether Linear’s practice, which required black employees to work in difficult outdoor conditions in the summer while allowing white employees to work comfortably indoors, violates Title VII.

Are physical working conditions “conditions of employment”?

The federal district court presiding over Peterson’s race-discrimination claim granted summary judgment to Linear, dismissing Peterson’s claim. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, explaining that “terms” and “conditions” of employment are limited to “ultimate employment decisions,” such as “hiring, granting leave, discharging, promoting, [and] compensating.” Under the Fifth Circuit’s decision, discrimination with respect physical working conditions is not protected by Title VII.

Broader Sixth Circuit Standard

But the federal courts of appeals are split on this issue. Other circuits, including the Sixth Circuit, which accepts appeals from the federal district courts in Kentucky, has held that Title VII is more expansive and protects against other kinds of unequal treatment in the workplace.

The Sixth Circuit has explained that “terms” and “conditions” of employment include not just “hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits[,]” but also “other indices that might be unique to a particular situation,” such as the allocation of work assignments, and factors impacting “prestige and desirability.”

We will follow the Peterson case to see if the Supreme Court grants his petition and decides this important issue that would impact our employer and employee clients. The employer’s response to the cert petition is due later this month.


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