U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Makes it Easier for Workers to Bring Title VII Claims Based on Discriminatory Transfer

In a recent decision issued on April 17, 2024, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that under Title VII workers do not need to show they suffered “significant” harm from an employment transfer to state a claim of discrimination under the law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is a federal law that prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and national origin. In the case Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, the Court explained that Title VII does not require an employee to show that they were “seriously” or “significantly” harmed to succeed on their claim of discriminatory transfer, simply that they were discriminated against regarding the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment based on a protected characteristic.

Case Background

Sgt. Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow sued her employer, the St. Louis Police Department, alleging she was reassigned to a less prestigious role because of her gender. Between 2008 and 2017, Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the SLPD’s Intelligence Division where she had access to FBI credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle, and the authority to pursue investigations outside of St. Louis. In 2017, the SLPD replaced Muldrow with a man and transferred her to a uniformed job in a new division. In her new position she supervised neighborhood patrol officers. Although her rank and salary stayed the same, she no longer worked with high-ranking officials in the department, lost access to an unmarked take-home vehicle and had a less regular working schedule that occasionally required weekend shifts. Muldrow claimed that that the Intelligence Division commander who transferred her sometimes called her “Mrs.” rather than “Sergeant” and testified that her male replacement was a better fit for the division’s “very dangerous work.” Muldrow sued the city for sex discrimination under Title VII and identified the transfer as the adverse employment action.

The District Court dismissed the case before trial finding that Muldrow had failed to show she suffered any “materially significant disadvantage” as a result of the transfer. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Both lower courts ruled that a standard referred to as “materially significant disadvantage” applied to this and other Title VII cases. To meet this standard, the employment action usually had to result in a lesser title, salary, or benefits. Muldrow appealed the rulings against her to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court held that "[a]lthough an employee must show some harm from a forced transfer to prevail in a Title VII suit, she need not show that the injury satisfies a significance test." In other words, an employee has to show some harm to an identifiable term or condition of employment,” from the unwanted transfer, but the employee need not show that the harm incurred was “significant” or “serious, or substantial, or any similar adjective suggesting that the disadvantage to the employee must exceed a heightened bar.” As a result, under Title VII employees now have a lower bar to plead and prove discrimination claims.

Impact of this Decision

The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Muldrow explains that Title VII does not require courts to distinguish between job transfers that cause significant disadvantages like lower pay, and those causing lesser harm. The decision also significantly strengthens protections against employment discrimination based on sex and other protected characteristics under the law like age, race, and national origin.

This is an important development in employment law and the decision will make it easier for workers to bring discrimination claims and protect their rights. The Court noted that many cases will come out differently under the lower bar the Court adopted in this decision. And it remains to be seen whether this lower bar will also apply to other forms of adverse employment actions like work reassignments or schedule changes, not just unwanted internal transfers.

We will continue to follow developments in the law from this decision for Title VII cases and similar employment laws.

See full Court Opinion

For additional information see:

NWLC Files Amicus Brief to Supreme Court on Sex and Race Discrimination in Job Transfers

Supreme Court Delivers Big Win for Workplace Equality in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis Ruling