April 18, 2024

Unanimous Supreme Court Issues Legal Standard for Title VII Suits Alleging Discriminatory Job Transfers

Holland & Knight Alert
Jasmine M. Tobias | Phillip M. Schreiber


  • Under Title VII, a discriminatory job transfer is actionable if the transfer resulted in some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment.
  • The harm suffered by the transferred employee need not be "significant" to maintain a Title VII claim.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a heightened threshold approach adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and other circuits.

In Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held on April 17, 2024, that an employee bringing a claim for discrimination under Title VII related to a job transfer need only show some employment disadvantage resulting from the transfer but need not show a "significant" disadvantage. In issuing its ruling, the Court resolved a circuit split regarding the threshold for harm necessary to maintain a Title VII claim related to a job transfer.

The opinion of the Court focused on the statutory text of Title VII. Under Title VII, it is prohibited for an employer "to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2(a)(1). In its ruling, the Court determined that the relevant text of the statute requires a transferee to "show some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment," but the transferee does not have to show that "the harm incurred was 'significant' … [o]r serious, or substantial, or any similar adjective suggesting that the disadvantage to the employee must exceed a heightened bar." 601 U.S. 6 (2024).

Complaint Allegations

Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the specialized Intelligence Division of the St. Louis Police Department from 2008 to 2017. During the course of her employment in the Intelligence Division, Muldrow investigated high-profile matters, including public corruption and human trafficking. Additionally, due to her position in the Intelligence Division, she was deputized as a task force officer with the FBI, which granted her bureau credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle and the authority to pursue investigations outside of St. Louis.

Michael Deeba joined the Intelligence Division in 2017 as its new commander. He allegedly sought to replace Muldrow with a male officer who Deeba felt was a better fit for the dangerous work the Intelligence Division handled. Muldrow was subsequently transferred to a uniformed job within the police department against her wishes. In her new position, Muldrow's rank and pay stayed the same, but her responsibilities, perks and work schedule changed. For example, Muldrow no longer worked with high-ranking officials and "now supervised the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers," and her new duties included tasks that were administrative in nature. Muldrow no longer had status in the FBI nor the unmarked take-home car, and her work schedule changed from a traditional Monday through Friday workweek to a rotating schedule that frequently included weekend shifts.

Lower Court Decisions

Muldrow filed her Title VII suit alleging that the city of St. Louis discriminated against her on the basis of sex with respect to the terms and conditions of her employment by transferring her from the Intelligence Division. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, holding that under Eighth Circuit precedent, Muldrow "needed to show that her transfer effected a 'significant' change in working conditions producing 'material employment disadvantage.'" The district court determined that Muldrow could not meet this heightened injury standard. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, holding that Muldrow "had to – but could not – show that the transfer caused as materially significant disadvantage."

Supreme Court Decision

Turning to the statutory text of Title VII, the Court reversed the Eighth Circuit’s decision and vacated the judgment, stating that the text of Title VII does not impose a heightened threshold of harm on an employee challenging a transfer pursuant to Title VII. The Court held that "[t]o make out a Title VII discrimination claim, a transferee must show some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment." The Court determined that the statutory text of Title VII did not distinguish between "significant" and "not-so-significant" disadvantages imposed on the transferee, and there is nothing in the text of the statute that imposes an elevated threshold of harm. To do so, the Court explained, adds words to the statute that the U.S. Congress enacted and imposes a requirement on a transferee that exceeds the statutory text.

Implications for Employers

Employers transferring employees to other positions within their organizations should take note that such job actions are now subject to judicial scrutiny even if the employee does not suffer a reduction in pay or benefits and remains at the same level. Accordingly, employers should exercise the same care when making job transfer decisions as they do when making discharge decisions.

Notably, Muldrow may open the door to other viable claims under Title VII where the employment action does not involve a material change in the employee's terms and conditions of employment. For example, would office assignments give rise to a claim if the employee alleges that they were placed in an office farther away from a key decision maker than other employees because of a discriminatory motive, thereby reducing the employee's ability to interact with the decision-maker, receive choice assignments and advance their career? These scenarios will have to play out in the lower courts to understand the full implications of Muldrow.

For more information or to examine the impact Muldrow has on your Title VII compliance efforts, contact the authors or another member of Holland & Knight's Labor, Employment and Benefits Group.

Information contained in this alert is for the general education and knowledge of our readers. It is not designed to be, and should not be used as, the sole source of information when analyzing and resolving a legal problem, and it should not be substituted for legal advice, which relies on a specific factual analysis. Moreover, the laws of each jurisdiction are different and are constantly changing. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. If you have specific questions regarding a particular fact situation, we urge you to consult the authors of this publication, your Holland & Knight representative or other competent legal counsel.

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