Employment-Fourth Circuit Rules That The Discriminatory Denial Of An Employment Benefit (Whether Or Not The Employer Is Obligated To Provide The Benefit) Constitutes Adverse Employment Action Under Title VII

In Gerner v. County of Chesterfield, No. 11-1218 (4th Circuit 2012), the plaintiff, Karla Gerner (“Gerner”), brought this suit against her former employer, Chesterfield County, Virginia (the “County”). Gerner claimed that the County unlawfully discriminated against her, in violation of Title VII, by offering her a less favorable severance package than that offered male employees holding similar positions. The district court dismissed Gerner’s complaint, on the ground that she failed to allege a Title VII claim because the County’s assertedly discriminatory denial of severance benefits did not constitute an adverse employment action. One question for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”): was the district court correct in holding that such denial is not an adverse employment action for purposes of Title VII?

In this case, after more than twenty-five years of employment by the County, the County informed Gerner that her position was being eliminated due to a re-organization. The County asked Gerner to sign an agreement, which offered her three months pay and health benefits in exchange for her voluntary resignation and waiver of any cause of action against the County. Gerner considered the offer for a few days and ultimately declined. The County then terminated her employment, without any severance pay or benefits. This suit followed, on the grounds that similarly situated male employees were offered more favorable severance packages.

An adverse employment action is an essential element of a Title VII claim. In analyzing the case, the Court said that an employment benefit-such as an offered severance package-need not be a contractual right (that is, a benefit which the employer is contractually required to provide) in order for its discriminatory denial (i.e., the denial of the same benefit as provided to males) to constitute an adverse employment action for purposes of establishing aTitle VII claim. As such, the Court ruled that the district court erred by dismissing the case on the grounds that a discriminatory denial of severance benefits did not constitute an adverse employment action.