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BLOG / 06.03.24 /Jack Malley

Supreme Court Decision Puts Employers on Notice of Increased Risk of Discrimination Claims Based on Job Transfers

Employee dissatisfaction with job transfers is a common difficulty that employers face all the time. A recent Supreme Court decision concerning federal discrimination claims based on job transfers announced an important change in the law that managers and HR professionals must be aware of.

The Supreme Court’s decision on April 17, 2024 in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis lowered the burden for employees asserting Title VII claims based on a job transfer.

The Court held that a Title VII claimant need not show that the transfer caused “significant” or “material” damage to the employee, such as, for example, by a cut in compensation, as numerous circuit and district courts have held.

In Muldrow, Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the St. Louis Police Department’s specialized Intelligence Division from 2008 into 2017. Later in 2017, a new Intelligence Division commander asked to transfer Muldrow out of the unit so he could replace her with a male police officer. Against Muldrow’s wishes, the Department approved the request and reassigned her to a uniformed job elsewhere in the Department. While Muldrow’s rank and pay remained the same in the new position, her responsibilities, perks, and schedule did not. After the transfer, Muldrow no longer worked with high-ranking officials on the departmental priorities lodged in the Intelligence Division, instead she supervised the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers. She also lost access to an unmarked take home vehicle and had a less consistent weekend shift schedule.

Muldrow commenced a Title VII sex discrimination that ultimately landed in the Supreme Court.

The Eastern District of Missouri granted the City summary judgment. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the decision, holding that Muldrow had to – but could not – show that the transfer caused her a “materially significant disadvantage.” The Eighth Circuit further held that Muldrow’s lawsuit could not proceed 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 Supreme Court reversed based on the plain words of Title VII, which provides that it “shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer … to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individuals race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

Based on this language the Court held that a job transferee does not have to show that the harm incurred was significant or material because the term “discrimination against” means “treat worse.” As such, an employee need only demonstrate that the subject transfer caused “some” harm connected to the employee’s terms or conditions of employment.

HR professionals and managers must be aware of the Muldrow decision because employee dissatisfaction with job transfers is inevitable.

In light of Muldrow, employers must be aware that a job transfer that provides the same compensation and similar job responsibilities may still be considered discriminatory under Title VII. Consequently, managers and HR professionals must scrutinize all transfers carefully to identify any and all changes to the employee’s terms and conditions of employment (not just compensation and job title, for example) to assess whether the proposed transfer may cause a significant risk of a discrimination claim.

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