One of the maddening things for employee advocates is how rules developed by the courts for one set of facts are used to swat down a case involving an entirely different set of facts. The First Circuit holds that's exactly what happened here, and reverses summary judgment when a judge used a standard developed for failure-to-hire cases to prematurely dismiss a forcible-transfer case.
Caraballo-Caraballo v. Administración de Correccion, No. 16-1597 (1st Cir. June 8, 2018): The plaintiff, Ms. Caraballo, was originally assigned "to a personnel unit that handled the Department's radio communications equipment, called the Radio Communication Area."
In 2009, "the Department assigned a male employee [Codero] to the Radio Communications Area. Approximately two months later, the Department transferred Caraballo out of the Radio Communications Area and reassigned her to inmate purchases -- i.e., the commissary ...." They then "assigned a second male employee [Anaya]" to Radio Communications, but when he was removed shortly thereafter, Caraballo was not invited to take his place.
Caraballo sued the agency under Title VII, "contend[ing] that the Department's initial decision to replace her with Cordero and its subsequent decision to select Anaya -- instead of her - as Cordero's replacement were both based on her gender. retaliation, and hostile work environment." The district court granted summary judgment on all claims
Addressing only the discrimination claim (while summarily affirming the balance), the panel vacates and remands the case. The panel holds that the district court made a critical categorical error in its decision. It relied on a First Circuit case - Johnson v. University of Puerto Rico, 714 F.3d 48 (1st Cir. 2013) - that disposed of a hiring claim, and mistakenly applied it to a forcible -transfer claim.
The district court held that Caraballo failed to make out a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas rubric because her high-school educational background was inferior, and thus not similarly situated, to Codero's associate degree. The panel concludes that this analysis is in error
The panel notes that a district court should not mechanically assume that an analysis developed in one Title VII case will necessarily fit the facts of the next case:
"Given the variety of discrimination cases in which courts apply the McDonnell Douglas framework, a principle established in one case will not always translate to another. In particular, there are significant distinctions between the qualifications elements in failure to promote or hire cases and those elements in discharge or transfer cases."
For a hiring or promotion case, "the plaintiff is ordinarily vying for an open position, for which the employer has established certain minimum qualifications." Thus in Johnson, the case was dismissed because there was no genuine dispute that she lacked a graduate degree required for the job. But for a forced transfer, the employer "has already expressed a belief that [the plaintiff] is minimally qualified," by previously "hiring the employee," and "in such cases, courts will rarely need to compare the plaintiff's credentials with the employer's stated job requirements."
In sum, "the district court's decision did not account for this contextual distinction between failure to hire or promote cases and discriminatory discharge or transfer cases." Because her work experience was the equal of or greater to her two successors, Caraballo, holds the panel, established that she was "similarly situated" to them in a legally meaningful way.
The defendant offered an alternative basis for affirmance - that the transfer was not an "adverse employment action" - but the panel rejects that too.
"[Plaintiff's] six years working in the Radio Communications Area allowed her to gain significant experience, and develop some expertise, in the field of radio communications. She inspected, programmed, and replaced radio equipment, performed repairs, maintained inventories, taught cadets to use radio equipment, and ensured that the Department was compliant with FCC guidelines. That experience and knowledge were rendered useless by her transfer to the commissary, a job that consisted of handling inmate purchases. This disparity in duties distinguishes Caraballo's transfer from those that we have found insufficient, and makes the transfer an adverse employment action."
Having held that the plaintiff met her prima facie case, the burden shifted to the employer to proffer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decision, but "the Department's briefing before the district court did not even attempt to offer such a justification." Thus, summary judgment had to be vacated.