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US Supreme Court Says Employee Need Only Show Some “Disadvantageous” Change To Support Discrimination In Job Transfer

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Employers, Public Safety
DATE: May 03, 2024

Sgt. Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the St. Louis Police Department’s specialized Intelligence Division for nearly 10 years.  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, had 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 of Sgt. Muldrow to a uniformed position.  While her rank and pay remained the same, her responsibilities, perks, schedule, and wardrobe choices changed.  Sgt. Muldrow no longer worked with high-ranking officials on priority matters in the Intelligence Division.  Instead, she supervised the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers and handled various administrative matters.  Sgt. Muldrow lost her FBI status and vehicle, and her work week went from Monday-through-Friday to a rotating schedule that included weekend shifts.

Sgt. Muldrow sued the city under Title VII to challenge the transfer.  The District Court granted the city’s request for summary judgment, and held that Sgt. Muldrow needed to show that her transfer effected a “significant” change in working conditions and produced a “material employment disadvantage”–a heighted standard that Sgt. Muldrow could not meet.  Sgt. Muldrow appealed and the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.  The US Supreme Court granted certiorari.

In a unanimous decision, the Court held that an employee who is 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 the ruling in the Eighth Circuit, and precedent in other circuits, that mandate that employees challenging a transfer under Title VII must meet a heightened threshold of harm requirement, described as “significant,” “serious,” “materially adverse,” or  similar terms.  As the Court explained, to demand “significance” where the law does not require it adds requirements that Congress enact.  The law only requires that employees show an allegedly discriminatory transfer brought about some “disadvantageous” change in employment terms or conditions.

Sgt. Muldrow’s transfer was a significant change in assignment for a long-time, respected police sergeant.  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.

Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, 144 S.Ct. 967 (2024).

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