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U.S. Supreme Court Makes Discrimination Claims Easier to Prove by Recognizing Job Transfer Can Be Adverse Action



Adverse employment action in employment discrimination claims are easier to prove with the U.S. Supreme Court’s much-anticipated April 17, 2024 decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri. Plaintiff police sergeant Muldrow of the St. Louis Police Department alleged she was transferred from one job to another within the police department because she is female. Sgt. Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the “intelligence division” of the department from 2008 through 2017. A new intelligence division commander then asked for Sgt. Muldrow to be transferred out of the division, against Sgt. Muldrow’s wishes, and a male police officer replaced her. Sgt. Muldrow’s transfer did not alter her rank or pay, but it did alter her job duties, including certain job perks like a take-home unmarked police car, and her schedule changed to include weekend shifts. Sgt. Muldrow was moved to supervising day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers, instead of working with high-ranking officials in the intelligence division. The Missouri federal district court rejected Sgt. Muldrow’s claim, finding her transfer did not create a “materially significant disadvantage” to her. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, finding the changes “did not result in a diminution of her title, salary, or benefits,” and caused “only minor changes in working conditions.”

In a unanimous 9-0 judgment, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Eighth Circuit’s requirement that the employment action must bring about “significant harm” with respect to identifiable terms or conditions of employment. Instead, the Supreme Court held some harm must have occurred, but it need not be “significant” for a legally valid claim to exist.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a worker based on sex or gender in a manner that affects the worker’s “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” The phrase “discriminate against” means to “treat worse” with respect to treatment by the employer that injures the employee(s). Particular to job transfer cases, the Supreme Court held that the transfer must bring about a “disadvantageous change” in an “economic or tangible” term or condition of employment. However, to require a “significant” disadvantage or change was adding words to Title VII that did not exist.

The Supreme Court left undisturbed its holding in Burlington Northern v. White, that for retaliation cases plaintiffs must still show “materially adverse” changes, meaning changes that cause “significant harm.”

Key Takeaways for Employers

  1. Employers considering unwanted job transfers for employees should carefully consider who is requesting the transfer and why, and who will be replacing the employee being transferred. In this case, the fact that Sgt. Muldrow did not request the transfer and was replaced with a male officer, and that there were tangible changes to her schedule, work vehicle, and job duties were all significant factors for the Supreme Court, and highlight that any job transfer that will involve changes that an employee may deem undesirable may give rise to an employment discrimination claim if there is a difference in protected status between the person being transferred and their replacement.
  2. Document, document, document (in case you needed a reminder). For unwanted job transfers, be sure to analyze the business and economic reasons for the job transfers, ensuring the reasons for the unwanted job transfers are not related to any protected class status, and then document the business and economic reasons for the job transfers. Many (if not most) job transfers are in groups rather than on an individual basis and are due to changing business or economic needs of a company such as a section or division being moved. Employers should be sure to document the job transfer reasons and clearly communicate these reasons to the workers.

The legal issues impacting this topic are and will continue to be ever-changing (Employment Law in Motion!), and since publication of this blog post, new or additional information not referenced in this blog post may be available.

This article is provided for informational purposes only—it does not constitute legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the firm and the reader. Readers should consult legal counsel before taking action relating to the subject matter of this article.

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