Court Upholds $1 Million Reverse-Discrimination Judgment In Favor Of White Officers

Steven King, Richard Snow, and Daniel Horsford were all police officers with the California State University at Fresno. King was a lieutenant, Snow was a sergeant, and Horsford was an investigator. All three are Caucasians.
King, Snow, and Horsford sued the University, claiming they were the victims of reverse discrimination, primarily at the hands of Willie Shell, the African-American Police Chief. When a jury found in favor of the officers, a trial court upheld the jury’s verdict, but reduced the amounts the three were to receive. Under the judgment, King was awarded $469,140, Snow $250,000, and Horsford $398,386.

The University appealed, contending that the actions taken against the three officers were minor in nature, and did not amount to the necessary “adverse action” to sustain a discrimination claim.

The California Court of Appeals disagreed with the University, and upheld the judgment. The Court observed that “the jury was not required to consider each individual mistreatment of a plaintiff in isolation. The jury was entitled to consider collectively the alleged discriminatory acts. There is no requirement that an employer’s discriminatory acts constitute one swift blow, rather than a series of subtle, yet damaging injuries.”

The Court found that the actions – primarily transfers – taken against the three officers constituted the requisite “adverse action.” As to King, the Court concluded that “when a police lieutenant is removed from his former position near the top of the department’s chain of command, and then is removed entirely from law enforcement duties, the objective terms and conditions of employment have been adversely affected. When that same veteran police administrator is transferred to head a department in which he has no training or expertise (and in which position he was inferably expected to fail), the terms and conditions of employment have been adversely changed.”

Turning to Snow, the Court felt that Snow’s suspension for lying, even if the suspension was with pay, constituted adverse action. The Court noted that “such a charge can destroy a police officer’s career. Reduction in authority and negative performance reviews also constitute adverse employment action.”

The Court found Horsford to have made an even stronger showing of adverse action even though, once again, all he received from Shell was a transfer without loss of pay. The Court reasoned: “Horsford was removed from a highly desirable position as the investigative officer for the Department and was placed on administrative leave for a period of months as a result of Shell’s claim that Horsford was mentally unstable. In Horsford’s case – unlike the circumstances of King and Snow – the jury reasonably could have concluded the employment action violated Horsford’s rights under the collective bargaining agreement and that the administrative leave, as a matter of the underlying facts, was unjustified both initially and in its duration. We conclude, however, that even if the management actions were permissible in other contexts, those decisions still resulted in adverse employment action. As such, if the transfer and suspension resulted from racial animus, they are actionable.”

Horsford v. Board of Trustees of California State University, 2005 WL 2086756 (Cal.App. 2005).

This article appears in the October 2005 issue