Supreme Court Ruling in Muldrow Lowers Bar That Title VII Plaintiffs Must Meet in Challenging Job Transfers

April 22, 2024 Advisory

On April 17, 2024, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its unanimous decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, holding that an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII must show that the transfer brought about some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment, but that harm need not be significant. This decision will effectively make it easier for Title VII plaintiffs to assert claims arising from workplace transfers.

Petitioner Muldrow was a sergeant with the St. Louis Police Department. She was initially assigned to the Intelligence Division, where she was a plainclothes officer investigating public corruption and human trafficking cases, overseeing the Gang Unit, and serving as head of the Gun Crimes Unit. She was also deputized as a Task Force Officer with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which afforded her FBI credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle, and authority to pursue investigations outside St. Louis. Muldrow was then transferred to the department’s Fifth District and replaced with a male sergeant. While her rank and pay remained the same, her responsibilities, perks and schedule did not. In her new role, she was a uniformed officer supervising the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers. She lost her FBI status and car, and her workweek became less regular, as she had a rotating schedule that often included weekend shifts.

Muldrow filed suit alleging Title VII violations, contending that she had been transferred based on her sex, and that denial of her post-transfer requests to be transferred to different units constituted retaliation. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the City, determining that Muldrow needed to show that her transfer effected a “significant” change in working conditions producing “material employment disadvantage,” and failed to do so. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, similarly holding that Muldrow had to show that the transfer caused her a “materially significant disadvantage.” The Court noted that her transfer did not result in a change to her title, salary, or benefits, and concluded that the transfer caused only “minor” changes to her working conditions.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a Circuit split over whether an employee challenging a transfer under Title VII must meet a heightened threshold of harm. Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, holding that “[a]lthough an employee must show some harm from a forced transfer to prevail in a Title VII suit, she need not show that the injury satisfies a significance test,” as “Title VII’s text nowhere establishes that high bar.” Specifically, an employee does not have to show that the harm was significant, serious, substantial, or “any similar adjective suggesting that the disadvantage to the employee must exceed a heightened bar.” The Court discounted the concern that the “floodgates” would open for Title VII plaintiffs, emphasizing that such plaintiffs must show some injury, and that “courts retain multiple ways to dispose of meritless Title VII claims challenging transfer decisions.”

Considering Muldrow’s specific allegations, Justice Kagan wrote that it did not matter if her rank and pay remained the same; rather, if her allegations were proven, “she was left worse off several times over” and met the “test with room to spare.” Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of the Eighth Circuit and remanded for further proceedings.

Although the decision was unanimous, Justices Thomas, Alito and Kavanaugh filed concurring opinions. Justice Alito downplayed the impact of the decision, writing that 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.”

While the Court’s decision will make it somewhat easier for Title VII plaintiffs in jurisdictions that previously imposed a heightened standard, the decision is relatively narrow in that the Court still required proof of some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment. In contrast, Justice Kavanaugh, while concurring in the judgment, expressed that he would have held that a transfer alone changes the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. However, he also surmised that “the Court’s approach and [his] preferred approach will land in the same place and lead to the same result in 99 out of 100 discriminatory-transfer cases, if not all 100.”

When considering an employee transfer, employers should carefully consider the standard articulated in Muldrow and, where appropriate, consult with legal counsel. If you have any questions specific to your organization, please contact your regular Armstrong Teasdale lawyer or one of the listed authors.

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