For employees seeking to challenge discrimination in the form of unwanted job transfers, the legal landscape recently became more hospitable to their claims.

By Lauren Kelleher

In April the Supreme Court handed down Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, No. 22-193, a unanimous decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan in which the court lowered the bar for employees challenging job transfers by their employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decision resolved a circuit split between federal courts of appeals that had previously found an employee must show “significant” harm and disadvantage or “material changes” to the terms and conditions of their employment from such a job transfer in order to bring a claim under Title VII; and at least one circuit that had rejected that heightened standard. 

The plaintiff, Jatonya Muldrow, a police officer with the St. Louis Police Department, sued after the department transferred her from its Intelligence Division—where she had worked for nearly a decade—to a patrol officer position. The involuntary transfer occurred when a new supervisor took over Ms. Muldrow’s former supervisor’s role and decided to replace Ms. Muldrow with a male colleague. In her suit, Ms. Muldrow alleged that she was replaced because she was a woman. During discovery it was revealed that the new supervisor who oversaw the transfer frequently referred to Ms. Muldrow as “Mrs.” rather than her formal title of “Sergeant,” and he testified that he believed Ms. Muldrow’s male replacement was a better fit for the Intelligence Division’s “very dangerous” work. 

Ms. Muldrow went from working in a “premier position” with department leadership on department-wide priorities such as public corruption, human trafficking, and gang violence—including overseeing the Gang Unit and Gun Crimes Unit—to a much less “prestigious” role supervising the daily duties and activities of neighborhood patrol officers—including approving arrests, reviewing police reports, and handling other administrative matters. The transfer also meant she could no longer use an unmarked take-home vehicle and a more irregular schedule that included weekend shifts. 

In its defense, the City argued that Ms. Muldrow had not and could not show that her transfer, even if against her wishes, resulted in a “significant” change in her working conditions that materially disadvantaged her: her pay had not been cut or her rank decreased. Without such a showing the City argued, Ms. Muldrow had no claim under Title VII. The City’s argument convinced the trial court and on appeal the Eighth Circuit agreed; relying on prior circuit court precedent that without a decrease in pay, title, benefits, or other “tangible change in working conditions that produce[d] a material employment disadvantage,” Ms. Muldrow had no case under Title VII.  

But the Supreme Court in a highly anticipated decision reversed, finding 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.  Title VII’s text nowhere establishes that high bar.” Instead, the court found an employee challenging a discriminatory transfer need only show “some harm”—not “significant harm” as some courts including the Eighth Circuit had previously found—to “an identifiable term or condition of employment,” and that “some” harm covered more than just what was “economic or tangible.”

Justice Kagan was clear, particularly in responding to Justice Thomas’s concurrence that the decision did not depart from any previously established standard, that the clarification of the standard was indeed a significant one that “lower[ed] the bar Title VII plaintiffs must meet.” Kagan pointed to several examples of forced transfers in prior circuit court cases that “failed under a significance standard” but “should now succeed”:  an engineer assigned to work at a new job site where that new job site was a 14-by-22 foot wind tunnel; a shipping worker involuntarily moved to a position involving only nighttime work; a school principal forced into an administrative role, no longer based in a school and supervising fewer employees.

Although not all the way to the argument Ms. Muldrow’s lawyer made at oral argument that “the injury [was] the discrimination itself,” Ms. Muldrow’s victory is significant because it makes clear to employers that discriminatory treatment, even when disguised as something more innocuous like a job transfer within the same organization is still not allowed under Title VII. This is an important victory for employees who have been sidelined or effectively demoted by an employer because of their sex or other protected classification. 

If you have questions about this topic or believe you have been discriminated against by an employer because of your sex, race, sexual orientation, or disability please contact us today for a consult. 

Authored by

Lauren J. Kelleher Associate