Employers sometimes mess up for perfectly innocent reasons. Everybody makes mistakes, and courts are usually quite hesitant to punish those mistakes if there’s no evidence showing some nefarious intent to harm an employee.
Recent case: Anne worked as a foreign language department head in a large urban school district. At the end of the school year, she was offered a chance to teach summer school.
She responded with a letter to her supervising principal in which she said she felt overworked and underappreciated and wanted “to take this chance to have a new beginning.”
The principal assumed Anne was requesting a transfer and assigned her to another school that needed a French teacher. The transfer came with a slight pay cut. Anne objected, explaining that she never intended the letter as a transfer request.
She then retired and sued, alleging race and age discrimination.
Anne didn’t get far. The school district alleged it merely made a mistake and the court agreed. Since there was no other smoking-gun evidence showing the district meant to cover up illegal discrimination with the transfer, the case was dismissed. (Collins v. Baltimore City Board of Education, No. 11-2386, 4th Cir., 2013)
Final note: Remember that you don’t always have to be right—as long as you are honest and aren’t covering up anything. In this case, the school district had the letter and the principal’s explanation for why she thought it was a transfer request. That was enough to win the case.