Blog & Legal Updates

U.S. Supreme Court Changes Legal Standard For “Adverse Employment Action”

By: Rosemary M. Marin – Attorney, ScottHulse PC

     On April 17, 2024, in a 9-0 decision written by Justice Elena Kagan, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a significant decision that resolved a conflict among the lower courts and broadened the scope of workplace discrimination claims.  22-193.  Muldrow v. St. Louis (4/17/24). In Muldrow, the Court held that a work transfer—with no loss in rank, pay, or benefits—was sufficiently harmful to allow the case to proceed to trial.  Specifically, the Court held that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended), a federal statute that prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on five protected characteristics, including gender, an adverse employment action resulting from alleged discriminatory conduct no longer must include “substantial harm” to the employee, but must only include “some harm” to the employee.

     In the Muldrow decision, Sgt. Jatonya Muldrow argued that her employer, the St. Louis Police Department, transferred her from one job to another job because she is a woman.  The Court found that Muldrow’s rank and pay remained the same in the new position, but her responsibilities, perks, and schedule did not. The Court stated that after the transfer, Muldrow no longer worked with high-ranking officials on the departmental priorities lodged in the Intelligence Division, instead supervising the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers. She also lost access to an unmarked take-home vehicle and had a less regular schedule, involving weekend shifts.

    Muldrow alleged, under Title VII, that the City, in ousting her from the Intelligence Division, had “discriminate[d] against” her based on sex “with respect to” the “terms [or] conditions” of her employment. 42 U. S. C. §2000e–2(a)(1). The lower courts dismissed the case before trial, holding that Muldrow had failed to meet the required legal standard to show that the transfer caused her a “materially significant disadvantage,” unlike a pay cut, demotion or job loss.  The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals had previously held that the transfer did not cause sufficient harm to constitute illegal conduct because it “did not result in a diminution to her title, salary, or benefits” and had caused “only minor changes in working conditions.” 30 F. 4th 680, 688 (2022).  The Court held that the lower court used the wrong standard by requiring “significant harm.”  Instead, the Court held that an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII “must [still] show the transfer brought about some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment, but that harm need not be significant.” Muldrow,  Pp. 5–11.

     This case lowers the legal standard used in any circuit that has previously required “significant,” “material, or “serious” injury to the employee, and may result in less pretrial dismissal of cases.   In doing so, it broadens the scope of claims that can survive scrutiny and get to trial under Title VII.

©ScottHulse, P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between ScottHulse and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material.

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