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Supreme Court Clarifies Low Burden for Employees to Establish Harm Supporting Discriminatory Job Transfer Claims Under Title VII

CATEGORY: Blog Posts, Nonprofit News, Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Nonprofit, Private Education, Public Employers
AUTHOR: Brian Hawkinson
PUBLICATION: California Public Agency Labor & Employment Blog
DATE: Apr 23, 2024

On April 17, 2024, the Supreme Court of the United States clarified the standard of harm an employee must demonstrate to support a discriminatory job transfer claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

In a unanimous decision, the Court held in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis that an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII need not show that the allegedly discriminatory transfer produced a significant employment disadvantage.  Rather, an employee need only show that the transfer brought some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment.

The Court’s decision overturned precedent in the Eighth Circuit, and other Circuits, mandating that employees challenging a transfer under Title VII must meet a heightened threshold of harm requirement, described as “significant,” “serious,” “materially adverse,” or by similar terms establishing a heightened bar.  As the Court explained, to demand “significance” where the law does not require it inappropriately adds words to what Congress enacted.  The language of the law only requires that employees show an allegedly discriminatory transfer brought about some “disadvantageous” change in employment terms or conditions.

The practical effect of Muldrow is that employees challenging a job transfer under Title VII will have an easier time establishing that the transfer produced some harm sufficient to support their claim.  In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito speculated the ruling would not effectively alter how the statute is interpreted, explaining that lower courts may reach similar conclusions as before, just with careful wording of their decisions to comply with the terminology of the new Muldrow opinion.

Still, the ruling should allow a larger percentage discriminatory transfer claims to survive to trial or settlement, and will likely result in more such claims being filed.  Employers should certainly take care to ensure that job transfers and other employment decisions are made without discriminatory motive or impact.

Notably, the transfer in question in Muldrow involved a fairly significant change in assignment for a long-time, respected police sergeant.

Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the St. Louis Police Department’s specialized Intelligence Division for nearly ten years.  In that role, she investigated public corruption and human trafficking cases, and oversaw the Gang Unit and Gun Crimes Unit.  By virtue of her position, Sgt. Muldrow was also deputized as a Task Force Officer with the FBI, granting her FBI credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle, and the authority to pursue investigations outside of St. Louis.

Sgt. Muldrow’s job performance was exceptional.  In 2017, the outgoing commander of the Intelligence Division referred to her as a “workhorse” and considered her his most reliable sergeant.  But the new Intelligence Division commander told the Department that he wanted to replace Sgt. Muldrow with a male officer.  The new commander – who often referred to Sgt. Muldrow as “Mrs.” rather than “Sergeant” – testified that a male officer seemed like a better fit for the Division’s dangerous work.

The Department approved the transfer and Sgt. Muldrow was transferred to a uniformed position.  While her rank and pay remained the same, her responsibilities, perks, and schedule changed.  Sgt. Muldrow no longer worked with high-ranking officials on priority matters in the Intelligence Division.  Rather, her new duties involved supervising day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers and handling various administrative matters.  Sgt. Muldrow lost her FBI status and vehicle, and her workweek went from a traditional Monday-through-Friday week to a rotating schedule that included weekend shifts.

The Court found that Sgt. Muldrow’s allegations, if proven true, “left her worse off several times over,” and noted that it did not matter that her rank and pay remained the same or that she could still advance to other jobs.  Title VII prohibits making a transfer based on sex with the consequences Sgt. Muldrow described.

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