Scared Staff / Reassigned Manager

Date: January 24, 2014

A recent federal court decision in a discrimination / retaliation case will be of interest to Maryland employers, HR managers, and people who mistreat their staff.

On January 14, 2014, the U.S. District Court of Maryland rejected a discrimination and retaliation claim by a manager who was reassigned to another location with reduced responsibilities after she submitted formal grievances alleging racial and gender discrimination.  The result of the case is not surprising in light of the facts of the case (only some of which are recounted here). But the Court used language that may serve as an encouraging reminder to employers who are considering taking adverse action against a manager based on staff complaints.

The manager, Ms. Countess, had worked for over 20 years with an agency of the State of Maryland. Staff members informed the investigators that they were afraid of Ms. Countess, and that she frequently belittled, threatened and cursed at them. As a result, Ms. Countess was temporarily relieved of certain managerial duties and authority based on the agency's investigation .Following the agency's temporary transfer of her responsibilities, Ms. Countess filed two grievances with the Maryland Department of Human Resources, both alleging discrimination. The first was decided in favor of the agency. While the second was pending, she received a negative performance review. In response to the review, she submitted a memorandum objecting to the review process as discriminatory, and demanding that her negative review be rescinded.

Within a month of submitting the memorandum, Ms. Countess was transferred to a different office.  Although her title and pay remained the same, she was formally relieved of her managerial responsibilities. 

She filed a charge with the Maryland Commission on Human Rights, alleging racial discrimination and that the agency had retaliated against her for exercising her right to make a discrimination claim.  The EEOC issued a right to sue letter, and she filed a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit in the District Court.

Ms. Countess claimed that the agency's explanation was merely a pretext for discrimination, and she argued that the investigation was not based upon “verifiable facts.”

But the District Court noted that “[r]eceipt of complaints about an employee's treatment of subordinates constitutes a legitimate reason to transfer that employee to a new position with less or no supervisory responsibilities.”

Citing decisions by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the District Court wrote that it is not the role of the federal courts to “act as a super-personnel department that reexamines an entity's business decisions.”  Rather, the courts' role is merely to determine whether the employee had cast doubt on the employer's explanation for its action. 

That the investigation could have been “better substantiated” was not significant, as long as the employer honestly believed that its action was based on a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason.  The court did not find significant the delay between the conclusion of the investigation (in March 2011) and the reassignment and reduction in responsibilities (July 2011), although Ms. Countess argued that the delay was evidence that the reassignment and reduction was retaliatory.  

Because Ms. Countess had failed to cast doubt on the employer's non-discriminatory explanation for its actions, her case was dismissed.

At the time of this case note, Ms. Countess had not appealed the decision.

**The preceding is provided for informational purposes, and is not intended as legal advice. The publication of the case note does not create an attorney/client relationship. Note that application of federal and state employment laws is often very dependent upon the situation under which a claim may arise.