Employment & Labor Law FLASHPOINTS May 2024

Catherine R. Locallo, Robbins Schwartz, Chicago
312-332-7760 | E-mail Catherine R. Locallo

U.S. Supreme Court Resolves Circuit Split for Title VII Claim Related to Job Transfer

On April 17, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved a circuit split for Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), Pub.L. No. 88-352, Title VII, 78 Stat. 253, claims related to a job transfer, thereby lowering the standard for plaintiffs to maintain a claim. In Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, 601 U.S. ___, ___ L.Ed.2d ___, 144 S.Ct. 967, 974 (2024), the Court ruled that Title VII prohibits a discriminatory job transfer as long as the transfer brings about “some harm” — however, that harm does not need to be “significant.”

Factual Background

Plaintiff Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the specialized Intelligence Division of the St. Louis Police Department from 2008 to 2017. She was responsible for investigating high-profile matters. Muldrow was also deputized as a task force officer with the FBI, which granted her bureau credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle, and the authority to pursue investigations outside of St. Louis.

In 2017, Michael Deeba became the new commander of the Intelligence Division. He sometimes referred to Muldrow as “Mrs.” instead of “Sergeant,” as he did with male officers. Muldrow claimed that Deeba wanted to replace her with a male officer who was better suited for the type of matters the Division was responsible for investigating. Shortly after Deeba assumed his new role, Muldrow was involuntarily transferred to a uniformed job within the police department. While her rank and pay stayed the same in the uniformed job, Muldrow’s responsibilities and work schedule changed. The new position was more administrative in nature, and she went from a typical Monday – Friday schedule to a rotating schedule that included weekends. In addition, she was no longer deputized as a task force officer with the FBI and no longer had access to an unmarked vehicle that she could take home.

District and Appellate Court Decisions

Muldrow filed a lawsuit under Title VII, alleging that she was discriminated against on the basis of sex as to the “terms or conditions” of her employment. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, holding that under Eighth Circuit precedent, Muldrow “needed to show that her transfer effected a ‘significant’ change in working conditions producing ‘material employment disadvantage.’ ” 144 S.Ct. at 967. She could not meet this burden because she did not experience a change in salary or rank and there was no significant altercation to her work responsibilities. The Eighth Circuit affirmed this heightened injury standard, holding that Muldrow “had to — but could not — show that the transfer caused a ‘materially significant disadvantage.’ ” 144 S.Ct. at 969, quoting Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, State of Missouri, 30 F.4th 680, 688 (8th Cir. 2022).

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court granted certiorari on June 30, 2023, to “resolve a Circuit split over whether an employee challenging a transfer under Title VII must meet a heightened threshold of harm — be it dubbed significant, serious, or something similar.” Muldrow, supra, 144 S.Ct. at 973.

In vacating the judgment below, the Supreme Cout focused on the statutory text of Title VII, which states that it is prohibited 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 race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2(a)(1). In its ruling, the Court determined that a plaintiff subject to an alleged discriminatory job transfer must “show some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment,” but the transferee does not have to show that “the harm incurred was ‘significant’ . . . [o]r serious, or substantial, or any similar adjective suggesting that the disadvantage to the employee must exceed a heightened bar.” 144 S.Ct. at 974.

The Court’s majority rejected the city’s primary arguments in defense of adding a heightened harm requirement. As to the city’s statutory text argument, the Court found that the statute simply did not contain a significant harm requirement, and there was no basis to read that into the statute. Similarly, the Court rejected the city’s argument that the standard for Title VII antiretaliation provisions, which apply when a retaliatory action is “materially adverse,” should apply to the antidiscrimination provision because the purposes of each provision differ. 144 S.Ct. at 976. The Court also disagreed with the city’s public policy arguments, doubting that employees would flood courts with litigation in the absence of a significant injury requirement. The Court reasoned that there are “multiple ways to dispose of meritless Title VII claims challenging transfer decisions,” and even if the city’s “worst predictions come true,” there would not be reason to “add words to the law” that Congress drafted. Id. The proper standard under Title VII did not require Muldrow to demonstrate that her transfer caused “significant” harm.

Takeaways for Employers

In view of the Supreme Court’s decision, employers should carefully evaluate the circumstances of a proposed job transfer, even those that appear to be lateral transfers in which there is no reduction in pay or rank within an organization.

While it is not yet clear how broad reaching the Court’s decision will be for the Title VII landscape, it may pave the way for claims other than job transfers in which the employment action does not necessarily involve a material change in an employee’s terms and conditions of employment. Consequently, employers should review their policies and procedures and provide updated training to supervisors and other decision-makers.

For more information about employment and labor law, see CONDUCTING THE EMPLOYMENT PRACTICES AUDIT (IICLE®, 2023). Online Library subscribers can view it for free by clicking here. If you don’t currently subscribe to the Online Library, visit www.iicle.com/subscriptions.

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