The diminution of an employee’s duties can constitute an adverse employment action in violation of Title VII, a New York federal court recently held in a case involving an African-American medical doctor.

Dr. Michelle Watson worked at Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC) as a clinical research fellow. In her Title VII complaint, she alleged that she was subjected to discrimination and a hostile work environment because of her race. The petri dishes containing her research were frequently missing, she told the court, she was referred to by her first name rather than as “Dr. Watson,” and she was asked to perform “menial” tasks such as taking out the garbage, cleaning off her supervisor’s desk and hauling nitrogen tanks. She also alleged that she was prematurely terminated.

After she was terminated, Watson sued. RUMC moved for summary judgment. Considering the issue of whether the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action, U.S. District Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall determined that her allegations were sufficient to let a jury decide.

The court found the allegation of premature termination as well as the assignment of menial tasks could suffice to form the basis of a Title VII discrimination claim.

“While ‘mere inconvenience[s] or an alteration of job responsibilities’ do not constitute adverse employment actions, the Second Circuit has indicated that a diminution in duties can constitute an adverse employment action where the diminution is ‘so significant as to constitute a setback to the plaintiff’s career,’” the court wrote. “Plaintiff testified at deposition that the assignment of menial tasks affected how she was perceived by colleagues and limited her networking opportunities.”

Turning to Watson’s requirement to establish the necessary inference of racial discrimination, however, the court found she failed to provide sufficient evidence. While she attempted to argue that the necessary discriminatory inference was evident from the more favorable treatment of other fellows—and the fact that she was the first and only African-American to have worked as a fellow for RUMC—she didn’t identify a single purported comparator, Judge Hall said.

The plaintiff fared better with her hostile work environment claim.

Some of her allegations—about missing petri dishes, for example—were not actionable and there was no evidence that their disappearance was motivated by race, the court said.

“That said, construing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiff, a reasonable jury could conclude that two categories of conduct were both objectively and subjectively hostile and occurred because plaintiff is African-American,” the court said: Watson being called by her first name in lieu of her title and the direction that she perform menial tasks.

“Being made to perform janitorial services and denied recognition for an earned medical degree could be deemed as constantly humiliating,” Judge Hall wrote. “Whether such conduct amounts to a hostile work environment is a triable issue of fact.”

To read the memorandum order in Watson v. The Richmond University Medical Center, click here.

Why it matters: Although the court granted summary judgment for the employer on the majority of the plaintiff’s claims (including discrimination, retaliation and breach of contract), it allowed her hostile work environment claim to move forward, finding that the assignment of menial tasks and denial of using her title were sufficient to create a triable issue of fact.