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U.S. Supreme Court lowers bar for proving discrimination in job transfers

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it easier for employees to sue their employers for discrimination under Title VII when they are transferred to a new position.

The case, Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, involved a female police officer was involuntarily transferred to a less desirable role, although her rank and pay remained the same.

In 2017, Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow, a longtime plainclothes officer for the St. Louis Police Department, was involuntarily transferred from the department’s Intelligence Division to a different unit, where she was required to wear a uniform and supervise patrol officers.

Although her rank and pay remained the same, Muldrow claimed that the new role was less prestigious and lacked the perks of her prior position, which included a take-home vehicle and a regular Monday-Friday schedule.

Muldrow sued the City of St. Louis, alleging that the transfer constituted discrimination based on her sex. The district court granted summary judgment for the city. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that Muldrow could not show that the transfer caused her a “materially significant disadvantage.”

Muldrow’s lawsuit could not proceed, the court said, because the transfer “did not result in a diminution to her title, salary, or benefits” and had caused “only minor changes in working conditions.”

The decision and its Impact

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the “materially significant disadvantage” standard applied by the lower courts.

The Court held that an employee need only show that a job transfer caused “some harm” with respect to a term or condition of employment to establish discrimination under Title VII. The harm need not be significant.

The key takeaways for employers are:

  • Employees no longer need to prove they suffered “significant” harm or “material disadvantage” from a job transfer to establish discrimination. They only need to show “some harm” related to their terms or conditions of employment.
  • While the case dealt with a job transfer, the Court’s reasoning likely applies to other types of employment actions as well. Plaintiffs may argue that any discriminatory action causing some harm could create liability.
  • Employers should carefully evaluate all job transfer decisions and other actions to ensure they are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, as even small negative changes could trigger a viable discrimination claim.

Some legal experts suggest that the ruling could have a chilling effect on corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, as opponents may leverage the “some harm” standard to challenge transfer decisions. Others suggest that the standard could be applied to other anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) which use similar language.

Moving forward, employers must be even more diligent in examining employment decisions to mitigate the risk of discrimination claims under the Court’s newly clarified standard.

Thoroughly documenting the business reasons for job transfers and other employment actions will be crucial in defending against such claims.