In a recent decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a lateral job transfer can – in certain circumstances – be an illegal adverse action and support a claim for a lawsuit for unlawful discrimination. This decision will increase the type of job actions for which employers can be sued and will lead to greater risk for employers in making challenging employment decisions.

On April 17, in the closely-watched case Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri (Docket No. 22-193), the Supreme Court held that a job transfer, even if there is no loss of pay and benefits, can be an adverse job action and serve as the basis for a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Court ruled that any such lateral transfer can be “actionable” so long as the employee can show “some harm.”

Background of the Case

After nine years of working as a plainclothes officer in the St. Louis Police Department’s specialized Intelligence Division, Sergeant Jatonya Muldrow was transferred out of the unit against her wishes, pursuant to the new commander’s request, who – as he later testified – wanted to replace Muldrow with a male police officer.

While her rank and pay remained the same in the new position, her responsibilities, perks, and schedule did not. She no longer worked with high-ranking officials on the departmental priorities lodged in the Intelligence Division but instead supervised the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers. Because she no longer served in the Intelligence Division, she lost her FBI status and the car that came with it. And the change of jobs made Muldrow’s workweek less regular. While she had worked a traditional Monday-through-Friday week in the Intelligence Division, she was now placed on a “rotating schedule” that often involved weekend shifts.

Muldrow sued the City of St. Louis under Title VII, alleging she had suffered sex discrimination with respect to the “terms [or] conditions” of her employment. Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, No. 22-193, 2024 WL 1642826, at *4 (U.S. Apr. 17, 2024). In support of her claim, Muldrow explained the following points:

  1. She had been moved out of a “premier position [in] the Police Department” into a less “prestigious” and more “administrative” uniformed role.
  2. She had fewer “opportunities” to work on “important investigations,” as well as to “network” with commanding officers.
  3. She lost material benefits, including her weekday work schedule and take-home car. Id.

Both lower courts rejected Muldrow’s claim on the ground that the transfer did not cause her a “significant” employment disadvantage. The district court dismissed the claim without a trial and granted summary judgment to the City of St. Louis.  There, the district court explained that Muldrow could not meet the heightened-injury standard under Title VII for the following reasons:

  1. She experienced no change in salary or rank.
  2. She provided no evidence that the alleged loss of networking opportunities available in the Intelligence Division harmed her “career prospects.”
  3. The switch to a rotating schedule and the loss of a take-home vehicle could not “fill the gap.” Id.

On appeal from the district court, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed, agreeing that Muldrow had to – but could not – show that the transfer caused a “materially significant disadvantage.” The Eighth Circuit emphasized that the transfer “did not result in a diminution to her title, salary, or benefits,” and the change in her job responsibilities was not enough to support a Title VII claim. Id.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted Muldrow’s appeal and reversed it.

The Opinion

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion for the Court and vacated the Eighth Circuit’s judgment. In support of this ruling, Justice Kagan explained that the language of Title VII only requires plaintiffs to show that “the transfer brought about some ‘disadvantageous’ change in an employment term or condition.” Id. at *5 (citing Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 80 (1998)).

“Thus, to make out a Title VII discrimination claim, a transferee must show some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment. What the transferee does not have to show, according to the relevant text, is that the harm incurred was “significant.” Or serious, or substantial, or any similar adjective suggesting that the disadvantage to the employee must exceed a heightened bar.” Id. (emphasis added)

 Accordingly, Muldrow need only show that the transfer has left her “worse off,” but not necessarily “significantly so.” Id. at *7. Applying this standard to the case at hand, Justice Kagan held that Muldrow’s allegations, if properly supported, meet the clarified test “with room to spare.” Id. Therefore, Muldrow’s case has been sent back to the lower court to analyze the facts under the clarified standard.

Implications

More likely than not, the Muldrow case will open the door for many new Title VII discrimination claims that would not have made it past summary judgment prior to this ruling. Employers must be even more cautious than they already had to be, anticipating that employees may now bring viable discrimination claims under Title VII if they suffered any harm when forced to transfer.

If you have any questions about this case and how its implications could affect your business, please contact the authors.

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Photo of Tim K. Garrett Tim K. Garrett

Tim Garrett helps employers solve complex issues related to all aspects of labor and employment law, providing in depth counseling and developing creative solutions to underlying business issues. He is an experienced trial lawyer, defending employers of all sizes in employment litigation claims…

Tim Garrett helps employers solve complex issues related to all aspects of labor and employment law, providing in depth counseling and developing creative solutions to underlying business issues. He is an experienced trial lawyer, defending employers of all sizes in employment litigation claims across the country. His work has ranged from defending a major university during a significant wage and hour collective action involving thousands of employees to the successful defense of a major healthcare provider in a gender discrimination / retaliation case. In addition, Tim has served as nationwide labor and employment counsel for the largest nonprofit dialysis company in the U.S.

Photo of Maja Hartzell Maja Hartzell

Maja Hartzell represents employers in a range of labor and employment law matters, defending against claims of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation before federal and state courts and other administrative entities. She has experience defending clients against claims arising under Title VII of the…

Maja Hartzell represents employers in a range of labor and employment law matters, defending against claims of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation before federal and state courts and other administrative entities. She has experience defending clients against claims arising under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, state whistleblowing statutes, along with the prosecution and defense of claims alleging breaches of restrictive covenants. In addition, Maja counsels employers on employee handbooks, employment agreements, and other employment policies and practices in response to and in compliance with developments in employment law.