Civil and Human Rights

Chambers v. District of Columbia

In Chambers v. District of Columbia, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is considering whether an individual challenging employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act must show that the discrimination produced “objectively tangible harm.”

Case Summary

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from “discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to h[er] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”  Even though this plain text imposes broad protections from employment discrimination, a panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held in a 1999 case called Brown v. Brody that the denial or forced acceptance of a job transfer is actionable under Title VII’s antidiscrimination provision only if there is “objectively tangible harm.”

In this case, Mary Chambers, an employee of the District of Columbia’s Office of the Attorney General, alleged that the District of Columbia denied her request to transfer to a different department, even though it granted similar requests from her male colleagues.  Chambers filed suit, alleging that her employer denied her transfer request because of her sex.  The district court applied the D.C. Circuit’s precedent from Brown and concluded that the District of Columbia did not violate Title VII when it denied Chambers’s request.  The district court determined that Chambers had failed to show that the denial of her transfer request because of sex caused “materially adverse consequences” or “objectively tangible harm.”  Chambers appealed to the D.C. Circuit, and a panel of that court affirmed the district court’s judgment.  In May 2021, the D.C. Circuit agreed to rehear the case en banc, and CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Chambers, urging the full court to overrule its decision in Brown and reverse the district court’s decision.

Our brief argues that Title VII prohibits an employer from “discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to h[er] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” regardless of whether that disparate treatment produces adverse effects or “objectively tangible harm.”  We argue that the original public meaning of Title VII’s plain text prohibits an employer from transferring an employee or refusing to transfer an employee because of sex or another protected characteristic, as such a transfer or denied transfer request necessarily affects an employee’s “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” even if her compensation and other monetary benefits remain the same.

Next, our brief argues that the D.C. Circuit’s Brown decision should be overruled because it imposes requirements on Title VII plaintiffs that have no basis in the relevant statutory text.  Brown requires that a Title VII plaintiff alleging discrimination must show that she suffered “materially adverse consequences” or “objectively tangible harm.”  But no such requirements exist in Title VII’s antidiscrimination provision, and requiring a plaintiff alleging disparate treatment to show that she suffered adverse consequences or objectively tangible harm is contrary to Congress’s plan in passing Title VII and the statute’s history.  As the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, Congress passed Title VII to eliminate discrimination in employment and to ensure that employees are not treated differently solely because of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  And the statute’s drafting history supports the view that Title VII prohibits discriminatory job transfers and denials of transfer requests.  Our brief therefore urges the full court to overrule its Brown decision and reverse the district court’s judgment in this case.

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