To deny an employee a transfer to a lateral employment position because of his or her protected class characteristic, e.g., race/color, religion/creed, sex/gender, national origin/ancestry, age, disability, or sexual orientation, is a violation of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 § 7, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et, seq. (1964) (“Title VII”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (the “NJLAD”). An employee demonstrating that they were the victim of discrimination needs to establish the existence of three elements: (1) that they are part of a protected category (race, sex, religion, color, or national origin); (2) they suffered an adverse action; and (3) causality, that is, they suffered adverse action from their employer because of their protected class characteristic(s). Once these three elements are established, discrimination can be found even when an employer merely withholds a benefit and the harm is not necessarily concrete or directly harmful to the employee. For example, if an employer does not give an (minority, religious, etc.) employee a particular promotion/benefit, which had otherwise been given to other, similarly placed (non-protected category) employees, it can be discrimination. This may apply even when the employer is not obligated to give those benefits/opportunities to the employees and the protected employee is not necessarily in a worse position than they were prior to being denied the requested benefit.
Recently, the D.C. Circuit in Ortiz-Diaz v. United States HUD, No. 15-5008, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 23805, at *1 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 2, 2016), limited prior precedent, reversed summary judgment, and remanded back to trial determination on the issue of whether a supervisor’s denial of a Hispanic employee’s lateral transfer request was discrimination under Title VII. Plaintiff, Samuel Ortiz-Diaz, worked for the Washington, D.C. Office of Inspector General and applied for a transfer to the Albany, New York, or Hartford offices. Ortiz-Diaz wanted to work at the Albany or Hartford offices to obtain a new “good” supervisor and remove himself from the control of his current supervisor who Ortiz-Diaz perceived as racially and ethnically biased. Ortiz-Diaz was even willing to take a pay cut just to get away from his biased boss, and thereby improve his career prospects, but his supervisor denied Ortiz-Diaz’s transfer request without explanation. Ortiz-Diaz sued claiming the denial of his lateral transfer was an act of discrimination. In agreeing that Ortiz-Diaz deserved to have his claims decided by a jury at trial, the D.C. Circuit Court distanced itself from prior court precedent where it was found that denial of a lateral transfer is not discrimination. In doing so, the D.C. Circuit Court concluded that since Ortiz-Diaz was denied the opportunity to advance his career by a supervisor who he perceived discriminated against him because of Ortiz-Diaz’s Hispanic heritage, his Title VII claim of discrimination was deemed legitimate and deserving of a jury trial.
The Ortiz-Diaz decision demonstrates how some federal courts continue to expand the protection of federal employment discrimination laws. Our courts in New Jersey often look to federal law as a key source of interpretive authority when assessing allegations of unlawful discrimination. Grigoletti v. Ortho Pharm. Corp., 118 N.J. 89, 97 (1990). Given the liberality typically accorded the interpretation and application of the NJLAD, it may be fairly predicted that our state courts would likely follow the D.C. Circuit Court by prohibiting discriminatory employment practices which take the form of denying an employee a lateral transfer.