For an employee to successfully claim that his employer retaliated against him for filing a discrimination claim he would need to show that he suffered a materially adverse employment action. Failure to get a desired office space or job assignment may not be enough to bring a discrimination claim.
In the decision of Rebecca Lockridge v. University of Maine System, decided on March 10, 2010 from the First Circuit Court of Appeals which hears appeals from the New Hampshire federal trial court, the Court noted that in 1994 Lockridge began work at the University as an Assistant Professor of Communications. While at one point she became the Department Chair, she was later removed from that position. In 2006, she claimed that she did not get a pay raise because she is a woman and filed a Complaint with the Human Rights Commission in December 2006.
Many faculty members in the Department of Communications are working out of a satellite office on the University’s campus. Satellite offices were necessary due to limited space in the Department’s HUB at the Chamberlain Street building. A vacant office became available in late 2007 or early 2008 at the Chamberlain Street building and was a more desirable space because it was located at the Department’s center and had direct access to the Department’s administrative support. Lockridge applied for the vacant office, but another female faculty member got that office. She provided evidence in Court that could support a claim that she did not get that space due to retaliation, yet the Court focused on whether the failure to get that office space was a material adverse employment action. To be materially adverse, the action must be one that could dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.
The Court first noted that under circumstances a denial of an employee’s request for office space could be a materially adverse employment action and it could dissuade a reasonable person from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. The Court has previously concluded that a disadvantageous transfers or assignments could be materially adverse although in context of conditions more severe than those attending the usual employment office space request. For example, the Court has previously found in another case that under the totality of assignments given to a police officer, including the officer’s transfer for an unusually long duration to a remote and solitary duty site, which was regarded as punishment by officers, constituted a materially adverse employment action that would support a retaliation claim.
In this case, the Court noted that Lockridge’s continued location in the satellite office was not unique. While the inconveniences may not be optimal, it did not affect Lockridge more adversely than it did some of her colleagues. Members more senior than Lockridge were similarly located in the satellite offices and while Lockridge’s request for a better office may have been a reasonable one, the Court found that the denial left her in no worse a position than that held by similarly situated faculty members. As a result, Lockridge lost on summary judgment which means she will not be able to present her claim to a jury.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].