Is the Threat of a Demotion Sufficient to Establish Discrimination?

In a case decided this summer, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals was asked to answer the question of whether a mere threat of demotion is a sufficient basis upon which to bring a discrimination claim. The answer, surprisingly, was yes. Primas v. District of Columbia involved an African-American female D.C. Police Commander, Evelyn Primas, who claims that she was manipulated into early retirement by threats of a demotion. She was soon after replaced by a white man who was offered a higher ranked position.

Evelyn Primas' Story

Primas had worked for the DC Metro Police Department since 1978. She had reached the rank of Commander and was serving as the Director of the Court Liaison Division. In 2007, Chief Cathy Lanier determined the department needed to be restructured. While reevaluating positions, Chief Lanier decided that the Court Division did not need the rank of Commander any longer because of the division's size.

Chief Lanier informed Primas that she could stay in the position, but she would have to accept a demotion to Captain, two ranks below her current status. Chief Lanier then "reminded" Primas that she had only two years left to retire. She was offered the option of taking early retirement or being demoted. When Primas considered her choices, she determined the best plan was to retire. Otherwise, she would be forced to retire in two years at a lower rank, which would drastically reduce the amount of her pension.

Just a few days after Primas retired, her position was given to a white man. However, the position was restructured as Inspector, which happens to be one rank higher than was offered to Primas. According to Chief Lanier, she did not realize until "the last minute," that the rank needed to be higher than Captain in order to elicit respect from the judges and attorneys.

When Primas confronted Chief Lanier with the disparity, Primas was offered the position of Inspector in another division, but the Chief refused to remove the white male from Primas' previous position. The trial court dismissed this case, holding that Primas was unable to demonstrate that the Police Department's reasons for the demotion were discriminatory.

Trial Court's Dismissal of These Claims Was Overruled by the Appellate Court

The Court of Appeals overruled the trial court and remanded the case for trial. The appellate court ruled that the case should not have been dismissed since the plaintiff's theory that her retirement had been manipulated was sufficient to survive summary judgment. Despite the decision maker being female, the fact that Primas' replacement was male was sufficient to present the issue to the jury.

Also, the fact that the male replacement was offered a higher ranked position supports an inference that Primas was demoted in an effort to persuade her to retire so the white male could be placed in the position. The timing of the Chief's realization "at the last minute," that a higher rank would be preferred for the position, was clearly suspicious. As such, the Chief's purported motivations for her actions lacked credibility.

This case presents a favorable ruling for employees in that it expands the interpretation of an adverse employment action. Since Primas actually retired, instead of being demoted, it could be argued that she did not suffer an adverse employment action. However, the evidence that her decision to retire was manipulated by the threatened demotion gave her the basis for her discrimination claims. If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination in the workplace, contact our office to discuss your possible claims.

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