Sheriff’s Department Prevails Due To Lack Evidence Of Adverse Employment Actions

Category: Briefing Room
Date: Oct 6, 2020 05:53 PM

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department hired Dr. Marcel Obi as an Informational Systems Analyst II in 2000.  In 2009, the Department promoted Obi to Information Systems Supervisor II.  In that job, he supervised others working in Web development and had a private office. 

In 2014, the Department reclassified Obi as a Principal Information Systems Analyst (PISA) after consolidating aspects of the Data Systems Bureau.  During this period, Captain Paul E. Drake oversaw that Bureau.  At Obi’s request, Captain Drake reclassified Obi to a different position (Principal Operations Systems Analyst (POSA), which resulted in an increase in his compensation.  According to Obi, however, his new job duties, including managing infrastructures like generators and air conditioning units, were unrelated to his previous job duties and experience in Web development. 

Following the reassignment and transfer, Captain Drake emailed Obi with expectations for the POSA position.  Captain Drake also stated, “If you cannot rise to the occasion you will be replaced.”  In a separate email that included Obi’s subordinates, Captain Drake wrote that Obi’s request for information to respond to another colleague’s inquiry was “immaterial.” Obi responded that Captain Drake’s email “humiliate[d] me in front [of] my subordinates” and wrote: “I just hope you realize you are constantly harassing me in many fronts and put a stop to it.”

When a Department supervisor seeks to correct a POSA, they issue a Performance Log Entry (Log Entry), which can be used to reprimand or discipline employees.  These Log Entries are discarded after one year.  Between March 2015 and July 2017, Obi’s supervisors issued Obi approximately 40 Log Entries.  Obi’s supervisors also began keeping daily logs about Obi with mostly negative comments and documentation of Obi’s daily activities. 

Obi received Performance Expectation Plans in 2015 and 2017 for failing to address issues in the Log Entries. Obi’s Performance Expectation Plan in 2015 informed Obi that he could not delegate tasks to subordinates without supervisor approval, which was not required of other POSAs.  Obi’s Performance Expectation Plan in 2017 threatened discipline if he failed to perform to standards. Despite this, Obi admitted that he received positive performance evaluations between 2014 and 2017.

In March 2016, the Department transferred Obi to a new work location, which had no offices. Obi no longer had a private office.

One of Obi’s supervisors assigned Obi as project manager for the Department’s “HyperV” project.  Obi refused to attend meetings on the project because he believed the project was fake and the meetings constituted harassment.  Obi attended trainings for the project but later claimed he was not given appropriate training.  In November 2017, Obi was removed from the HyperV project.

Obi then sued the Department and his supervisors, alleging that they subjected him to adverse employment actions because of his race and national origin as an African-American of Nigerian descent in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act.  To support his claims of discrimination, retaliation, and harassment, Obi also alleged he overheard his supervisors ask, “What does he [Obi] get from his country?”

The trial court granted summary judgment for the Department and Obi’s supervisors on the grounds that they did not take adverse employment action against Obi.  The trial court found no connection between the Department’s alleged actions and Obi’s race or national origin. 

Obi appealed, alleging there were triable issues as to whether the Department took adverse employment actions against him due to his race and national origin. The Court of Appeal disagreed and affirmed summary judgment for the Department and Obi’s supervisors.

The Court of Appeal held that Obi’s job assignment, transfer, and loss of a private office were not adverse employment actions.  Quoting Simers v. Los Angeles Times Communications LLC (2018) 18 Cal.App.5th 1248, the Court of Appeal acknowledged that “job reassignment may be an adverse employment action when it entails materially adverse consequences.”  However, Obi’s reclassification resulted in an increase in compensation, and Obi offered no evidence that there was an available position that would have allowed him to work in his preferred field (computer science rather than infrastructure). Obi also offered no evidence that his new office location was materially adverse, especially since there was no evidence that other POSAs had private offices.

The Court of Appeal also held that the criticism from Obi’s supervisors, including the Log Entries, Performance Expectation Plans, and emails by Captain Drake, were not adverse employment actions.  Obi admitted that he received positive performance evaluations during the period at issue, and offered no evidence that the conduct at issue substantially or materially changed his employment enough to impair prospects for advancement.

The Court of Appeal held there was insufficient evidence that Obi was given an unreasonable workload related to the HyperV project or denied training opportunities.  The court acknowledged that Obi did attend trainings but was ultimately removed from the project after he refused to work on it.  Therefore, the HyperV project could not have led to extra work or impaired his performance. Similarly, Obi’s allegations that he was deprived of supervisory authority were either too isolated or trivial to be sufficiently adverse or were not supported with evidence.

Since the Court of Appeal concluded there were no adverse employment actions, it did not consider whether any actions by the Department or Obi’s supervisors were linked to an alleged animus based on Obi’s race or national origin. 

Obi v. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, 2020 WL 4783354 (2020).

Note:

Although this case is unpublished and therefore generally not citable, it is a notable reminder that not all employment actions contrary to an employee’s preferences constitute actionable adverse employment actions under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

 

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