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Maryland Federal Court Finds Employee’s Reassignments Not Adverse Employment Action

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland recently denied relief to an employee of the Wicomico County Department of Corrections (WDCD) who claimed that she faced unlawful discrimination via several department reassignments and disciplines.  Passwaters v. Wicomico County, No. 1:18-CV-02923 (D. Md. 11/27/19).

Passwaters worked as a Correctional Officer for WCDC.  She was promoted to Master Correctional Officer and offered a position in the Transportation Unit, which consisted of two female officers and three male officers; was considered a department with “elite status”; but was generally disfavored by female officers.  As a routine matter, officers were regularly “rotated out” of the Transportation Unit and required to work any post assigned.  All officers were subject to possible rotation.

In spite of these conditions, Passwaters repeatedly disagreed with, resisted, and grieved the reassignments, citing perceived inequities among who was chosen (male vs. female) to be rotated out of the Transportation Unit at a given time.  Generally, WCDC took the position that rotations were based on officer training needs and the officer ratio (i.e., two females to three males) it needed to maintain in the Transportation Unit.

When WCDC decided to reduce the Transportation Unit to one female and three male officers, Passwaters was permanently removed.  She grieved this decision, complaining of discrimination and harassment but was told by WDCD to keep her complaints “in house” and that the decision was based on the job need to remove one of the female officers.  Passwaters believed that she had been targeted and retaliated against and demanded to return to the Transportation Unit, where she ultimately returned to the Transportation Unit and continued to be rotated out and back in.

Subsequently, Passwaters received a written warning for being “upset [with] and disrespectful” towards another employee as well as a letter of reprimand for being “unprofessional” after reporting to work without her contact lenses or eyeglasses (the job required use of a handgun).  She was terminated after arriving later for and disappearing from a meeting concerning her discipline.

Passwaters sued, alleging retaliation, race discrimination, and gender discrimination in violation of Title VII and Maryland FEPA.  In order to succeed under both laws, a plaintiff needs to show that he or she suffered an adverse employment action, in addition to other requirements.  The district court disagreed with Passwaters that her reassignments and written warning were adverse employment actions that could subject WDCD to liability under Title VII or Maryland FEPA.  Although a job reassignment may be an adverse employment action if it results in a decrease in compensation, job title, work responsibility, or opportunity for promotion, the court found no evidence that Passwaters’s reassignments resulted in any of these.  Instead, Passwaters never lost her job title or faced a change in duties, and the reassignments were simply “periodic removal[s] from a generally undesirable post[.]”  And while written warnings or verbal reprimands may be adverse employment actions if they result in consequences akin to a termination or demotion, Passwaters’s written warnings here failed to alter the terms or conditions of her employment.

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