Employee’s Bias Claim Failed Because She Didn’t Show She Was Demoted


By Joanne Deschenaux May 28, 2019

A Los Angeles employee could not proceed with her disability-discrimination claim against the county because she suffered no adverse employment action, a California appellate court ruled. Although she claimed that she was demoted to a receptionist position when she returned from medical leave, the evidence showed that while she was temporarily assigned a workspace in the reception area, she retained her previous job title and pay, the court said.

The plaintiff worked in the human resources division of the county's probation department. In November 2012, she went on long-term medical leave for six months due to pre-existing disabilities.

In May 2013, she returned to her position in the human resources division. She was temporarily assigned a desk in the reception area because of a lack of staff cubicles. Her desk faced away from the reception and waiting area, and her temporary desk assignment did not alter her civil service rank or grade.

The plaintiff filed a complaint alleging, among other claims, that the county discriminated against her based on her disability by demoting her to a receptionist. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit before trial, and the plaintiff appealed.

No Adverse Employment Action

To bring a case of disability bias under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the plaintiff must first show that he or she:

  • Suffered from a medical condition or physical disability.
  • Was able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.
  • Was subjected to adverse employment action because of the disability.

There was no dispute that the plaintiff was able to perform the essential functions of her job with an accommodation and that when she returned to work in May 2013, she had a physical disability, the appellate court said. The court, however, agreed with the trial court that the plaintiff did not suffer an adverse employment action, and it affirmed the dismissal of the complaint.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What is the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and what does it cover?]

The court first noted that to serve as the basis for a bias claim, an adverse employment action must materially affect the terms, conditions or privileges of employment. The relevant question, the court said, is whether the county's actions had "a detrimental and substantial effect" on the plaintiff's employment. A change that is merely contrary to the employee's interests or not to the employee's liking is insufficient.

In this case, although the plaintiff claimed that she was demoted to a receptionist position, there was no evidence that she was ever demoted. To the contrary, the court said, the undisputed evidence was that the plaintiff maintained her civil service role.

Therefore, the court concluded, the plaintiff failed to offer substantial evidence to support her claim that she was demoted.

Powell v. County of L.A., Calif. Ct. App., No. B279151 (May 9, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Adverse employment actions include termination, a decrease in pay, a less distinguished title, a material loss of benefits or significantly diminished job responsibilities.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.


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