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Can a Change in Office Space Mean Discrimination?


When someone is treated less favorably than someone else because of their race, for instance, there may be claims discrimination. There are federal anti-discrimination laws, namely Title VII, which forbid discrimination in employment. Employment actions such as hiring, firing, pay raises, job assignments, promotions, layoffs or reductions in force, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment, cannot be based on someone's race. But, are there other types of discriminatory actions that are prohibited? For example, can a change in office space mean discrimination?

High School counselor accuses new principal of discrimination

An African-American high school counselor had been working in that position for 17 years, when a new high school principal came along in 2008. At that point, she was reassigned to middle school students and then removed from her office and placed in a storage room. Of the five counselors at the high school, she was the only African-American. Her new office space was physically uncomfortable to the point of actually being harmful to her health. She ultimately retired, after 38 years of service at the school, as a result of the mistreatment she endured.

Is a change of office space an adverse action under the law?

The basic legal question is whether moving the counselor out of her office and into a storage room is actually an adverse employment action. One of the arguments against her claim of discrimination is that the change in office space did not result in a change in her job title, salary, hours, or other terms and conditions of employment. However, the court determined that a reasonable jury might conclude that reassigning her caseload and relocating her office created such a substantial change in the terms and conditions of her employment.

Retaliation claim for employee's complaint to OSHA

Part of the counselor's claim is that she complained about her office relocation, but the school principal refused to move her to a more suitable location, despite the fact that there were suitable alternatives. The counselor actually submitted medical records demonstrating that the office was harmful to her health. She then complained to OSHA, which investigated the complaint and found violations. The court found the principal's refusal return the counselor to a more appropriate office space, to be retaliation for the counselor's complaints of discrimination.

A factual dispute regarding pretext

Of course, the principal had a defense for his actions. He claimed that the purpose of his actions was only to reconfigure the counselors' offices in order to position them closer to their charges. However, the African-American counselor alleged that her new office assignments placed her further away from her students, even when there were more closely situated and more desirable offices that remained vacant. Because these genuine factual disputes existed, the court allowed the equal protection claim to move forward, as well.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment attorneys at Michel | King , either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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