Dallas County Jail discrimination suit could have broader civil rights implications
A legal expert says the legal precedent for the case is a point of interest for the Supreme Court, and could go to the high court as soon as next year.
A sex-based discrimination lawsuit against the Dallas County Sheriff's Office could have broader implications for federal civil rights law.
A federal appeals court is reviewing for a second time a lawsuit filed by female jail guards who alleged sex-based discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The policy in question expressly allows male officers to take full weekends off but not female officers, according to court documents.
Michael Maslanka, an associate professor of law at UNT Dallas, said this case is important for deciding what it takes to stop legally contentious instances of workplace discrimination.
"It's important to stop unlawful discrimination — and this is essentially what the plaintiffs were arguing — in the bud," Maslanka said.
Weekend shifts for detention officers at the Dallas County Jail used to be assigned by seniority. But that changed in 2019, according to the suit. That pushed nine female officers to sue the sheriff's office for violating Title VII, which prohibits discrimination as it relates to an employee's terms of employment.
A lower court previously dismissed the case in 2020 because of legal precedent — the judge decided the women had not proven any adverse employment action was taken against them, such as being fired or denied a promotion.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals initially agreed. But the plaintiffs asked for a rehearing with all of the circuit's 16 current judges — what's known as a hearing en banc.
That hearing was Tuesday night, as attorneys and worked through hypotheticals that could help narrow definitions of workplace discrimination, such as a manager only taking employees of a certain race out to lunch.
Plaintiff's attorney Madeline Meth said Tuesday the court's interpretation of the law has been too limited.
“Title VII's unadorned wording admits of no distinction between economic and non-economic discrimination or tangible and intangible discrimination,” Meth said.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General to review the legal precedent for Hamilton v. Dallas with respect to a similar case. Maslanka said that kind of request is generally a clear indication the Supreme Court will take up a case.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union are among those who have filed briefs in support of the female officers. Anna Baldwin, an appellate attorney for the Department of Justice, argued Tuesday this case falls neatly within the Title VII definition of discrimination.
"In deciding this case, the court can simply decide this case and not issue a compliance manual," Baldwin said.
Maslanka said the defense is likely worried that ruling in favor of the female officers will "open the floodgates" for claims to be made about anything that could be interpreted as workplace discrimination.
Still, he said, he believes the law is ultimately on the women's side, and that an unfavorable ruling from the Fifth Circuit would be an outlier.
The Fifth Circuit's opinion will likely come this summer, he said, and the Supreme Court could potentially take up the case sometime next year.
"They're not going to be the only court of appeals...to still adhere in 2023 to this antiquated notion of what an adverse employment action is," Maslanka said.
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