Labor and Employment


On April 17, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Muldrow v. St. Louis, and held that a plaintiff alleging a discriminatory job transfer doesn’t have to allege or prove that the transfer resulted in a “significant” change in working conditions to prevail under Title VII.

Sgt. Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow worked for the St. Louis Police Department. In 2017, when her division experienced a change in leadership, she was transferred to a different unit that carried with it a different set of responsibilities, disrupted her regular work hours, and removed her access to FBI-related authority. Her transfer did not result in a change of seniority, loss of pay, or demotion in rank. She alleged that her previous role was more “prestigious” while her new role was more “administrative.”

Sgt. Muldrow sued, claiming sex-based discrimination in violation of Title VII. The trial court held that, because she did not experience a “material employment disadvantage,” she could not succeed on her claim. The differences between her two jobs, the trial court decided, were “minor alterations of employment” and not “material harms,” which made recovery under Title VII inappropriate. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision. The Court held that the plain language of Title VII does not impose a requirement that the harm suffered by a discrimination plaintiff must be “significant” or “material.” While a discrimination plaintiff must still allege and prove that she experienced a “harm” or “injury” from the transfer, that harm does not have to be “significant.”

This ruling lowers the bar for employees who allege that they have been subjected to discrimination. Plaintiffs no longer need to meet some higher standard of “harm” in order to articulate a claim of discrimination—as long as an employment action as undertaken based on the employee’s protected class, and some “term, privilege, or condition of employment” is affected, the employee may be able to prevail on a claim.

In light of this ruling, employers should be as vigilant as ever not to treat employees differently based on a protected class, even if the employment action does not impact salary or seniority. Employers defending against Title VII discrimination may also find it more difficult to get cases dismissed pre-discovery, or to have summary judgment granted after discovery, because courts may decide that a jury needs to determine whether the injury is sufficient to merit recovery. On the other hand, by the same token, juries may be willing to award lesser damages for claims which raise proof of less “significant” harm.

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