Supreme Court Lowers Plaintiffs’ Burden for Title VII Discrimination Actions

April 23, 2024 – On April 17, 2024, the United States Supreme Court handed down a 9-0 decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri et al. which significantly reduced the burden for plaintiffs pursuing Title VII claims based on job transfers.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on sex and other protected characteristics and requires a plaintiff to show discrimination with respect to the “terms or conditions” of employment because of that individual’s protected characteristic. Until now, courts were split on whether a job transfer could cause a sufficiently significant level of harm to a plaintiff to give rise to an actionable Title VII discrimination claim.

In Muldrow, the plaintiff was allegedly transferred from her job as a plainclothes officer in the St. Louis Police Department’s Specialized Intelligence Division so a male employee could fill her position. Although the transfer did not alter the plaintiff’s pay or rank, it resulted in a change to her responsibilities, perks, and schedule. The plaintiff alleged that this transfer amounted to sex discrimination with respect to the terms and conditions of her employment in violation of Title VII.

The district court granted summary judgment for Muldrow’s employer, a ruling which was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals because Muldrow had not shown that she suffered a “materially significant disadvantage” as a result of her transfer.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII need only show “some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment” and that the harm “need not be significant.” According to the Supreme Court, “to demand ‘significance’ is to add words to the statute Congress enacted. It is to impose a new requirement on a Title VII [plaintiff], so that the law as applied demands something more than the law as written.” The Court also noted that this ruling “lowers the bar Title VII plaintiffs must meet.”

As a result, it is now possible for a Title VII plaintiff to prevail on a discrimination claim by showing any level of harm resulting from a change to the terms or conditions of employment—provided that the change is a result of unlawful discrimination—regardless of whether the harm is significant.

Also of note is that the Supreme Court stopped short of extending Muldrow’s holding to Title VII retaliation claims. Such claims are instead governed by the Court’s prior ruling in B.N.S.F. Railway v. White which held that a plaintiff must suffer a retaliatory action that causes “significant” harm to prevail on a Title VII retaliation claim.

We intend to closely monitor the lower courts for additional developments in this area of the law and will keep clients informed about any such subsequent developments.

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