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Supreme Court Identifies Employee-Favorable Standard for Workplace Discrimination Claims

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On April 17, 2024, the Supreme Court held in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis1 that an employee alleging a discriminatory job transfer need only show “some injury” respecting their employment terms or conditions, rather than a “significant harm” or some “materially significant disadvantage,” to establish a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Background

Sergeant Jatonya Muldrow alleged that her employer, the St. Louis Police Department, discriminated against her on the basis of her sex when it replaced her with a male police officer and reassigned her to a new role.

From 2008 to 2017, Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the Department’s specialized Intelligence Division. In 2017, against her wishes, Muldrow was transferred out of her unit and into a uniformed position within the Department. While Muldrow’s rank and pay remained the same

in the new position, her responsibilities, perks, and schedule did not. This new role no longer allowed Muldrow to work alongside high-ranking officials. Rather, she supervised the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers. She lost her FBI status and the take-home vehicle that came with it. Additionally, Muldrow no longer worked her traditional weekday schedule, and instead was put on a “rotating schedule” which required weekend shifts.

Muldrow sued the City, alleging that her transfer discriminatorily impacted the terms and conditions of her employment in violation of Title VII. The District Court disagreed and granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, relying on Eighth Circuit precedent that required Muldrow to show that her transfer effected a “significant” change in working conditions producing a “material employment disadvantage.” The Eighth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that because Muldrow had experienced “only minor changes in working conditions” Muldrow could not show that the transfer caused a “materially significant disadvantage.”

Supreme Court’s Holding

The Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Kagan, reversed and held that in discriminatory job transfer cases, plaintiffs need not satisfy a heightened standard and show significant harm. Rather, Title VII only requires an employee to show “some injury respecting [their] employment terms or conditions. The transfer must have left [them] worse off, but need not have left [them] significantly so.”

The Supreme Court’s holding resolved a Circuit split over whether an employee challenging a transfer under Title VII must meet a heightened threshold of harm to establish a claim under Title VII. In holding that Title VII prohibits making a transfer, based on sex, with the consequences Muldrow described, the Court explained that it “does not matter” that Muldrow’s “rank and pay remained the same, or that she still could advance to other jobs.” The Court vacated the judgment of the Eighth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings, instructing the lower court to “use the proper Title VII standard, and not demand that Muldrow demonstrate her transfer caused ‘significant’ harm.”

Key Takeaways for Employers

The Muldrow decision will make it easier for plaintiffs to establish claims alleging discriminatory transfers in violation of Title VII, as employees and former employees merely need to demonstrate “some harm” resulting from the allegedly discriminatory transfer, rather than demonstrating that they experienced “significant harm.” Thus, when evaluating the potential transfer of an employee, employers should carefully consider not only the impact a transfer will have on an employee’s salary, benefits, and rank, but also the not-so-obvious impacts upon the employee’s networking opportunities, job responsibilities, work schedules, and opportunities for career advancement.

Most importantly, employers and human resources professionals should ensure that employment-related decisions are made for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, and that those reasons are clearly documented. In light of the Muldrow decision and the low burden facing employees to establish a Title VII claim by identifying “some harm” resulting from an employment decision, such as a job transfer, employers facing such claims should be ready to explain why an employment decision resulting in “some harm” was nevertheless made for legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding the Supreme Court’s Muldrow decision or have questions about implementing job transfers, please do not hesitate to contact your local Quarles & Brady attorney or one of the listed authors.

END NOTES


1 601 U.S. ____ (2024).

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