HR Management & Compliance

Are Your Employees Trained on Discrimination Definitions?

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently grappled with the question of what constitutes actionable harm to an employee in an employment discrimination case. Let’s look at what the court decided.


Mark Laster, an African-American male, worked for the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan. In June 2010, President Barack Obama was a guest speaker at a Kalamazoo high school. Laster acquired several tickets to the event.

According to the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS), Laster crashed his vehicle into a police car, left the scene of the accident, “negatively engaged” with supervisory officers, and tried to make an unauthorized entry into the area where the president was seated. Laster denied the allegations. The city’s investigation into the incident culminated in a “predetermination hearing,” which, under the collective bargaining agreement, allows an employee to explain his actions before disciplinary decisions are made.

Laster sought the advice of Michael McCaw, a coworker and former assistant deputy chief of the KDPS. Based on his tenure as an administrator, McCaw felt Laster would probably be discharged at the hearing. It was undisputed that he had no inside knowledge; he merely gave Laster his personal opinion. After consulting with McCaw, Laster failed to attend the hearing and instead submitted a letter of resignation so he would be entitled to a partial pension.

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Laster then filed a lawsuit claiming race discrimination and alleging that he was constructively discharged. Specifically, he claimed that over the course of 3 years, he was:

  • Given poor job evaluations (that were admittedly later removed from his file);
  • Denied a request for training;
  • Denied the use of a meeting room for his daughter’s birthday celebration;
  • Excluded from a departmental business meeting;
  • Suspended for being disruptive during a meeting (that was  later overturned);
  • Denied the use of office space to store personal property;
  • Reprimanded for failing to maintain proper equipment; and
  • Subjected to heightened scrutiny.

Laster also claimed that his report of a computer screen saver allegedly showing a dog urinating on an Obama election sign wasn’t properly investigated. He interpreted the screen saver as a personal attack based on his open support of  Obama. The district court dismissed Laster’s race discrimination claim, and he appealed to the 6th Circuit, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

Court’s decision

Although some of his other claims survived for trial, the 6th Circuit ruled that the evidence Laster cited in support of his race discrimination claim failed to show any “adverse employment action”— i.e., a substantive negative change in his terms and conditions of employment. Likewise, the court rejected his claim that based on the same evidence, he was constructively discharged.

According to the court, constructive discharge occurs only when an employer deliberately makes an employee’s working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable employee has no choice but to resign. Even assuming that Laster’s allegations of poor treatment were true, the court held that he presented no evidence that the actions were taken with the intention of making him resign. Laster v. City of Kalamazoo, 13-1640, 2014 WL 960892 (6th Cir., Mar. 13, 2014).

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Bottom line

This case provides a reminder that only significant changes in the terms and conditions of employment constitute the kind of adverse action that supports a discrimination claim. However, the court’s ruling is something of a double-edged sword. Because of different legal rules that apply to different legal claims (such as retaliatory discharge), the employer still faces more proceedings before the trial court.

According to the court of appeals, the trial court didn’t apply the “proper” rules in its analysis of the other claims—in addition to discrimination—that were in the lawsuit. Thus, even though the appeals court ruled that Laster’s discrimination case failed and his “discharge” wasn’t really a discharge, the same alleged “discharge” will have to be reviewed again!

For more information on the topic, please contact Brandon Gearhart at, an editor of Kentucky Employment Law Letter.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll give valuable information for discrimination training, and we’ll showcase a fast-paced, nitty-gritty resource that helps you train on key HR topics in 10 minutes flat.

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