In the school setting, what do you suppose would be the equivalent of re-assigning a sheriff’s deputy from “patrol duty” to duty at the jail?  According to the 5th Circuit, the transfer of a deputy from patrol duty to the jail can be viewed as an “adverse employment action.” That means that if the boss did it with an improper motive, the boss may have some serious legal problems.

This came up in Burnside v. Kaelin, decided by the 5th Circuit on December 9, 2014.  Mr. Burnside alleges that Sheriff Kaelin punished him for not supporting him in an election.  Burnside was the chair of a law enforcement political action committee (PAC).  In his lawsuit, Burnside alleges that Sheriff Kaelin told him that the PAC ought to support him in an upcoming election.  Burnside told Kaelin that the membership would have to vote on that, and that the sheriff would be treated just the same as the other candidates. Burnside alleges that Kaelin threatened to move him to jail duty if the PAC did not come through for him, and that Kaelin followed through with that threat just three weeks later.

Normally, a job transfer (in education, we usually call this a “reassignment) does not come under the category of “adverse employment action.”  But the court held that some job transfers do fit that description.  If the new job is “objectively worse” or “markedly less prestigious and less interesting.”  Key Quote:

Here, Sheriff Kaelin took Burnside off the streets and placed him in the jail. The complaint alleges that the transfer was “typically considered by all in [Burnside’s] position to be……a demotion.” Burnside alleged that Sheriff Kaelin himself viewed the transfer as a demotion.  One reasonable inference is that Kaelin initiated the transfer to punish Burnside for not supporting Kaelin in the 2012 election….Given the facts and reasonable inferences drawn from Burnside’s complaint, his transfer alleges an adverse employing action under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. 

And that means that Sheriff Kaelin was not entitled to qualified immunity. Thus the suit was not dismissed and will continue, giving Burnside an opportunity to prove the truth of his allegations.

Be cautious before ordering a reassignment that might be viewed as an “adverse employment action,” even when the contract and school policy give you the authority to do so.  Check your motives.  Make sure that your decision is based on job-related, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons.