SCOTUS Alert: Muldrow Moves the Title VII Bar

On April 17, 2024, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Muldrow v. St. Louis that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discriminatory job transfers, even if the harm is not “significant.”

Why It’s Important

Title VII is a foundational federal law preventing discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Practices that are clearly unlawful under Title VII include firing someone because of their race, demoting them because of their gender, or cutting their pay because of their national origin — in other words, actions taken on the basis of a protected characteristic that negatively impact the employee’s livelihood. That negative impact is key. An employee must have been damaged to have standing under Title VII. After all, no one complains about being promoted on the basis of a protected characteristic.

The Muldrow decision is interesting because it tests the boundaries of how much harm an employee must show to create a claim under Title VII. As the Supreme Court explained, the level of harm need not be significant.

The Facts

Sergeant Jatonya Muldrow sued her employer, the St. Louis Police Department, under Title VII, alleging that it had engaged in sex-based discrimination against her when it transferred her to a new position against her will. Notably, Muldrow’s rank, pay, and benefits remained the same. The harm she allegedly suffered with this transfer was more subtle. Muldrow claimed her schedule was less favorable, as she found herself having to work weekends. She also dealt with lower-level matters and stopped being able to collaborate with higher-level officials.

The trial court dismissed Muldrow’s claim, holding that she failed to establish harm resulting from the transfer. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding that Muldrow had not shown that the transfer caused a “materially significant disadvantage.” The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, noting there was a split among federal courts of appeal on how to evaluate harm for purposes of Title VII.

The Decision

In a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that Title VII does not require employees to show that the harm caused by a transfer was “significant.” Instead, all the employee needs to show is that he or she suffered some harm in relation to a term or condition of employment. In arguing that employees should be required to make an enhanced showing of harm, the police department cited Supreme Court precedent holding that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII would only be triggered upon a showing of a “materially adverse” effect on a term or condition of employment. Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan rejected that argument, finding that while a heightened standard of harm may be needed to trigger the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII, there is no similar requirement to trigger its anti-discrimination provision.

While all nine justices agreed that Title VII does not require a showing of “significant harm” for a job transfer, they disagreed with the majority’s reasoning. Justice Thomas opined that, while a significant harm may not be necessary, Muldrow had failed to show any “non-trifling” harm. Justice Alito bluntly called  the majority opinion “unhelpful,” saying he did not understand what it meant and predicting that lower courts would simply continue doing what they had been all along. Justice Kavanaugh had a different perspective, opining that the act of discrimination based on a protected characteristic itself was the harm and that no further harm need be proven.

Implications for Employers

Muldrow establishes that a job transfer with the same pay, benefits, and rank is not bulletproof against a Title VII claim. More subtle harms, like a diminution in prestige or a less favorable schedule, can be enough to support a Title VII claim. Muldrow underscores the need for careful consideration of how employees are treated and the Court’s recognition that unlawful discrimination is not limited to affecting employee paychecks.