Supreme Court Lowers the Standard for Discrimination Claims Based on Job Transfers

May 1, 2024

On April 17, 2024, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, holding that while an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) must prove some harm with respect to a term or condition of employment, they need not show “significant” harm.

For nine years, petitioner Sgt. Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer for the St. Louis Police Department in its specialized Intelligence Division. In 2017, despite her strong job performance, Muldrow was transferred to a uniformed position at the new Intelligence Division commander’s request, and her old position was filled by a male. Though Muldrow’s rank and pay were the same in her new role, she no longer worked with high-ranking officials, lost her FBI credentials and access to an unmarked take-home vehicle, and enjoyed a less consistent, rotating schedule, which included weekend shifts.

Muldrow sued the City of St. Louis under Title VII, claiming that the Police Department had discriminated against her based on her sex when it transferred her from one job to another. The district court granted summary judgment to the City, reasoning that Muldrow was required and failed to show that the transfer caused a “significant” change in her working conditions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed, determining that Muldrow failed to establish that the job transfer caused a materially significant disadvantage as it only caused minor changes in her working conditions, and she could not show that the transfer reduced her title, salary, or benefits. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the circuit split over whether an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII must make a heightened showing of harm to prevail.

The Supreme Court unanimously vacated the lower court’s judgment, 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.” The Court emphasized that for employees to demonstrate they were discriminated against, they need only show that they were treated worse based on sex, not “how much worse.” To apply this so-called “significance test” would add words to the statute Congress enacted and demand more of Title VII claimants than the law as written requires.

Recounting the ways in which Muldrow alleged the terms and conditions of her employment changed with her job transfer, the Court noted that the fact that Muldrow’s rank and pay remained the same was inconsequential. The Court determined that if she could prove her allegations, Muldrow had satisfied the appropriate harm standard “with room to spare” as “she was left worse off several times over.” The Court remanded the case for the lower courts to reconsider those allegations while applying the appropriate standard.

Employers should prepare for a potential increase in Title VII discriminatory job transfer claims, as the Court’s decision lowers the standard for these claims in some jurisdictions that previously applied the significance test. Employers should ensure that any transfers are supported by well-documented legitimate and nondiscriminatory business reasons and thoroughly investigate any complaints of transfer-related discrimination to avoid or combat potential litigation. Moreover, because the Court’s analysis does not turn on anything specific to the transfer context, employers may also see an uptick in other types of Title VII claims alleging discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment. 

If you have any questions about potential impacts of the Court’s decision in Muldrow, please contact the authors, your McGuireWoods contact or a member of the firm’s labor and employment or appeals and issues teams.