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Is a Job Duty Reassignment Considered an Adverse Employment Action?

By on January 24, 2017 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

Employers occasionally find themselves in a situation where they must reassign an employee to a different shift or a different duty assignment due to staffing needs or some other legitimate business reason.  Although the reassignment is usually lawful when it can be supported by legitimate business reasons, a disgruntled employee may claim that the reassignment is a discriminatory/unlawful adverse employment action.  This then leads to the question: when does an employee’s reassignment become an “adverse employment action” under the law?  The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey recently analyzed this question in Betts v. Summit Oaks Hospital, No. 14-06357, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3535 (D.N.J. January 10, 2017).  The Court ultimately found that without evidence that the job reassignment had a tangible impact on the employee’s employment, the employee was unable to show that she suffered an adverse employment action.

Facts of the Case:

Defendant Summit Oaks Hospital (the “Hospital”) hired Willie Kay Betts (“Betts”) as a full-time nurse in November 2011. Betts was primarily assigned to the rehabilitation unit within the hospital but she was, at times, assigned to the detoxification unit. The Hospital regularly requires its employees to temporarily staff different units due to its varying staffing needs.

According to Betts, she was assigned to the detoxification unit in the hospital for the greater part of 2012.  Betts was not transferred to the detoxification unit, but she claims that she was staffed exclusively there until late 2012 or early 2013.  Betts also alleges that she was assigned to the detoxification unit more often than other nurses because of her race and color.  Betts resigned from her position with the Hospital in August 2015.

Betts filed a charge of discrimination against the Hospital with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).  The EEOC conducted an investigation and issued a right to sue letter, detailing the EEOC’s determination that the Hospital had discriminated against Betts.  The EEOC declined to file suit against the Hospital and advised Betts of her right to file a private lawsuit.  Betts filed a lawsuit in United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, claiming that she was discriminated against on the basis of her race and color in violation of Title VII because she was assigned to the detoxification unit more often than Caucasian nurses were assigned there.


The Hospital filed for summary judgment. It argued that Betts was unable to establish that she suffered an adverse employment action, which is part of the prima facie case of discrimination.  An adverse employment action is a “significant change in employment status such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities or a decision causing significant changes in benefits.” Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761 (1998).  Here, Betts was sometimes assigned to work in the detoxification unit, when she had an alternative preferred unit. However, “minor actions such as lateral transfers and changes of title and reporting relationships are generally insufficient to constitute adverse employment actions.” Langley v. Merck & Co., 186 F. App’x 258, 260-261 (3d Cir. 2006). Although Betts preferred to work in the rehabilitation unit, Betts failed to show how her assignment to the detoxification unit had any tangible impact on her employment.  Betts’ pay, benefits and terms of employment remained the same throughout her employment with the Hospital.  Thus, Betts was unable to establish that she suffered an adverse employment action and summary judgment was granted in favor of the Hospital.

What does this mean?

      Employers have the ability to temporarily reassign employees based upon legitimate business needs.  If a reassignment does not have any tangible impact on the employee’s employment, this will not be considered an adverse employment action.  Since the question of whether or not a reassignment will have a tangible impact upon employment can be fact specific (and more complicated than it seems at first glance), it is best to consult with counsel before making significant reassignments of employees.


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