Court Upholds $300,000 Award To Officer For Transfer

Byron Hickey, a police officer employed by the Columbus Consolidated Government in Georgia, sued the City, claiming he was retaliated against for opposing unlawful discrimination. When a jury awarded Hickey $306,969, the City asked the trial court to overturn the award on the grounds that inadequate evidence supported Hickey’s claims.

The Court rejected the City’s arguments. The key issue was whether Hickey’s transfer from the Vice to the Burglary and Theft Unit was significant enough to amount to a “materially adverse employment action” to trigger Hickey’s rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

As the Court analyzed it, “to establish that he suffered a materially adverse employment action, Hickey must prove that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse. If the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s finding that the transfer from Vice to Burglary and Theft might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination, then Hickey has established this element of his retaliation claim.

“Hickey presented evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that the Vice Unit carried more prestige than the Burglary and Theft Unit and that Hickey’s transfer out of Vice could reasonably be seen as punishment. For example, two detectives testified that the Vice Unit is a prestige unit within the Department. Evidence also existed from which the jury could have concluded that the Vice Unit was considered more prestigious and desirable than other units because it was a fast track to detective. Although he would not admit Vice was more prestigious, Police Chief Ricky Boren confirmed that Vice officers ‘have to be motivated,’ ‘have to get out on their own,’ and ‘have to initiate cases on their own.’ A reasonable jury could construe this testimony along with the other evidence to conclude that a reasonable officer would consider Vice to be a more prestigious assignment than Burglary and Theft.

“The City emphasizes that Hickey’s new duties in Burglary and Theft were less arduous because they involved the response to reported crimes rather than self-initiated interdiction work. That is exactly why Hickey objected to the transfer; Hickey’s theory at trial was that his transfer from Vice to Burglary and Theft was similar to transferring a combat Army Ranger to a desk job against his will. A reasonable juror could conclude that the evidence supported this theory because Vice agents were handpicked and had to be motivated self-starters who could work tough cases with minimal supervision, while the Burglary and Theft division was more structured and involved less self-initiated work. Moreover, evidence was presented from which a reasonable juror could conclude that a transfer out of Vice could be viewed as a punishment.

“For all of these reasons, the Court concludes that there was a legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to conclude that the transfer from Vice to Burglary and Theft would dissuade a reasonable and motivated police officer from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

Hickey v. Columbus Consol. Government, 2011 WL 882110 (M.D. Ga. 2011).

This article appears in the August 2011 issue