SCOTUS Ruling Likely to Spawn More Challenges to Job Actions

In its April 17th, 2024, ruling in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, the United States Supreme Court significantly eased the burden for employees challenging mandatory job transfers as a discriminatory action in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Court’s ruling makes it clear that to advance such a claim, the employee need only show that the transfer resulted in “some harm” rather than “significant harm” to the terms and conditions of employment.  The Court’s groundbreaking decision resolves a split among the circuit courts, with numerous circuits applying a heightened standard that required proof of “substantial harm” to the employee.

The Challenged Transfer

Police Sergeant Jatonya Muldrow worked for nine years as a plainclothes officer in the St. Louis Police Department’s specialized Intelligence Division.  After a new Division Commander was hired, Muldrow was reassigned to a uniformed position in another district at the same rank and pay, against her wishes.  Muldrow claimed that because she was no longer in the Intelligence Division she lost her FBI status, department vehicle, and other perks.  In addition, the transfer to the “less prestigious” uniform patrol changed her regular schedule to a rotating schedule that included weekend shifts.  Muldrow claimed she was transferred because the new Commander wanted to replace her with a male officer, in violation of Title VII.

Applying a heightened injury standard, the District Court dismissed Muldrow’s claims because she failed to show that her transfer resulted in a “significant” change in her work conditions producing a “material employment disadvantage.”  Muldrow did not show that her loss of prestige affected her career opportunities or that her supervisory responsibilities were significantly altered, and her rotating schedule and loss of her vehicle did not fill the gap.  The 8th Circuit applied the same heightened “materially significant disadvantage” standard and affirmed the dismissal.

The Relaxed Standard Applied by SCOTUS

The Supreme Court rejected the significant harm standard applied by the 8th Circuit and other circuit courts, noting that Title VII “imposes no such requirement.”  Rather, Muldrow need only show that the transfer “left her worse off, but need not have left her significantly so.”  Writing for the majority, Justice Kagan observed that the transferee does not have to show that the harm was “serious or substantial, or any similar adjective suggesting that the disadvantage must exceed a heightened bar.”  The fact that Muldrow’s rank and pay remained the same did not negate the other disadvantages she experienced with the transfer.

The Court soundly rejected the City’s claim the lower standard would swamp the courts and employers with insubstantial lawsuits by transferred employees, noting that employees still must demonstrate that the transfer caused some harm to the employee’s terms and conditions of employment.

Going Forward

The ruling clearly places greater burdens on Human Resources and other decision makers, who should now assess whether a transfers or other change to an employee’s working conditions has any adverse effects upon the employee, thus opening the possibility of a claim that the action was motivated by the employee’s gender, age, race or other protected status under Title VII.  To survive such challenges, employers must be prepared to offer evidence that there were legitimate business justifications for the action that were unrelated to the affected employee’s protected characteristic.

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