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Shift Assignment Based on Race Can Be Discrimination

Five Black captains working for the City of Cleveland’s Emergency Medical Service (EMS) division sued the city for race discrimination. The city relies on a seniority-based bidding system to assign shifts, with preference given for tenure. If the city assigned the Black captains shifts based on their bids, some of the day shifts would be entirely staffed by Black captains. The EMS commissioner took one of the Black captains from the day shift, replacing him with a white captain to create diversity in the shift. Day shifts involve less idle time, allow more captains to work together, result in more regular sleep and eating habits, and allow more social engagements outside of work. The Black captains complained about the assignments based on their race, triggering a union grievance with the Ohio state agency. In 2019, the captains sued the City of Cleveland for violation of Title VII by assigning shifts based on race and for retaliating against the men for making these complaints.

A federal district court dismissed their lawsuit, acknowledging that EMS’ shift transfer for the captain was race discrimination but concluding those changes did not qualify as a “materially adverse employment action.”

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case and reversed the lower court’s decision. The circuit court asserted there was little room for debate that the city “treated the black captains different ‘because of ‘their race.’” The primary issue before the court was whether the shift scheduled impacted the terms of employment as required by Title VII. The court held shift changes may be materially adverse and prohibited under Title VII. In reviewing the facts before it, the court noted the shift changes impacted the captains’ bidding schedules, reduced their benefits of seniority, and diminished their supervisory responsibilities. The appellate court rejected the city’s argument that suffering economic harm was essential to a Title VII claim, finding it would “render meaningless many of the words in the statutory phrase ‘compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” Title VII protects aspects of employment beyond financial compensation.