US Supreme Court Clarifies Proof Required In Title VII Job Transfer Cases

Volume: 23 | Issue: 12
April 18, 2024

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, which sought to clarify the standard of proof to be applied to an alleged discriminatory job transfer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Court ruled that a plaintiff must show that the transfer brought some harm to an identifiable term or condition of employment, but that the harm need not be significant.  

In this case, a police sergeant sued over a job transfer which did not alter her rank, pay, or benefits, but did change her responsibilities, perks, and schedule. Her lawsuit was dismissed because the transfer was not a “significant” change in working conditions producing a “material employment disadvantage.” She ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled against what it considered a heightened burden of proof used in some jurisdictions. The Court rejected any standard of proof requiring “significant,” “material,” or “serious” injury, explaining that “the text of Title VII imposes no such requirement.” 

Instead, the Court determined that a transferee must show some harm or injury to a term or condition of employment – “[t]he transfer must have left her worse off.” The Court believed the sergeant’s allegations (if proven) met this test “with room to spare” because she was “moved from a plainclothes job in a prestigious specialized division giving her substantial responsibility over priority investigations and frequent opportunity to work with police commanders” to a “uniformed job supervising one district’s patrol officers, in which she was less involved in high-visibility matters and primarily performed administrative work. Her schedule became less regular, often requiring her to work weekends; and she lost her take-home car.” 

Although the Court’s decision was unanimous, Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, arguing that directing a plaintiff to show “harm” or “injury” that need not be “significant” or “substantial” is “unhelpful” guidance. Justice Alito wrote: “I see little if any substantive difference between the terminology the Court approves and the terminology it doesn’t like. The predictable result of today’s decision is that careful lower court judges will mind the words they use but will continue to do pretty much just what they have done for years.” 

Justice Alito has a good point. The Court’s decision is not particularly helpful except to clarify that a plaintiff does not need to show significant, material, or serious harm from an alleged discriminatory job transfer. We also gain some insight into the types of harm the Court finds relevant, which may include perks and prestige. While this decision was focused on job transfers, employers should expect plaintiffs to rely upon it in Title VII cases challenging other job actions. 

KZA attorneys are always available to help you make decisions regarding changing terms and conditions of employment. Consulting counsel before making such changes can help to minimize legal challenges and/or ensure a solid defense should a challenge later arise. 

KZA Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.

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