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On April 17, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, held that to succeed in a Title VII suit alleging a discriminatory job transfer, an employee does not need to have suffered a significant harm as a result of the transfer.

The case was initiated by Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow (“Muldrow”) against her employer, the St. Louis Police Department (“SLPD”).  Muldrow claimed that SLPD transferred her to another role because of her gender and replaced her with a male police officer.  While Muldrow’s rank and pay remained the same in the new position, she began working with lower-ranking officers, lost access to an unmarked take-home vehicle, and she was required to work weekend shifts.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the City.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed, holding that that the transfer was not an adverse action because it “did not result in a diminution to her title, salary, or benefits,” which caused “only minor changes in working conditions.”  In short, the lower courts placed the onus on employees to prove that a job transfer caused significant harm, reasoning that minor impacts were insufficient for a successful Title VII discrimination claim.

Faced with the question of whether immaterial harm could effectively support a Title VII discriminatory job transfer claim, the Supreme Court held that the harm need not be significant.  Instead, an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII must only show that the transfer resulted in some harm to an identifiable term or condition of employment, even if the harm is not significant.

In reaching this ruling, the Court looked at the statutory language of Title VII and noted that:

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s . . . sex.”

The Court was cautious in clarifying that harm is still a necessary factor in Title VII discrimination cases, but requiring an employee to demonstrate “significant” harm is not consistent with the statutory language – any such requirement would result in adding words to Title VII that were not intended by Congress.

In explaining its position, the majority analyzed the Court’s previous decision in Burlington N. & S.F.R. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) where the Court established that retaliatory actions under Title VII must be “materially adverse,” which the Court considered equivalent to a requirement of “significant harm.”  However, the Court distinguished retaliation claims under Title VII from discriminatory job transfer claims in that retaliation claims take into account whether employer actions are serious enough to dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.  The Court purported that “an action causing less serious harm will not deter Title VII enforcement and so falls outside the purposes of the ban on retaliation.”  The same reasoning does not apply to discrimination claims, which flatly “prevent[s] injury to individuals based on protected status without distinguishing between significant and less significant harms.”

The future of job transfer-related litigation under Title VII is uncertain, but the Court’s lowering the bar for employees could result in an opening of the floodgates for these types of cases.  Now more than ever before, employers should be mindful of employment decisions that may land them in “easy win” territory for employees.  Accordingly, employers should closely analyze job transfers and seek legal counsel before making these decisions.


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