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Fifth Circuit Changes Standard for Bringing Title VII Claims

Nine female detention officers who work in the Dallas County jail objected to the unfair distribution of days off. The county gave male officers both weekend days off and limited female officers to partial weekends at most. The female officers allege their supervisor told them this schedule was "based on gender" and necessary for safety reasons. It would be unsafe for the male officers to be off during the week. Female and male officers performed the same duties and supervised the same number of inmates during the week and on the weekends.

The entire panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case. In prior cases, this circuit held that a Title VII claim could only move forward where an "ultimate employment decision" occurred. Typically, an "ultimate employment decision" was related to hiring, firing, and promotion decisions. A facially discriminatory work scheduling policy did not meet this qualification.

After reviewing the text of Title VII, the Fifth Circuit changed its standard, concluding the statute does not limit unlawful discrimination to "ultimate employment decisions." The statute's language also prohibits employers from discriminating "in the terms, conditions, or privileges of his or her employment," which the "ultimate decision" standard ignored.

In Hamilton v. Dallas County, the officers reasonably alleged a disparate treatment claim. The terms and conditions of their employment, i.e., the schedule of days and hours worked, were decided based on sex. Although it did not specifically enumerate when an employer's acts may be enough to violate Title VII, the court did say that it must be more than "de minimis workplace trifles." This decision will make it easier for plaintiffs in this circuit to file their claims.