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May 16, 2024 - by Pamela Langham

U.S. Supreme Court Lowers the Benchmark for Adverse Employment Actions in Title VII Cases

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from “discriminat[ing] 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). Employment lawyers are well-versed in the burden-shifting framework used in disparate discrimination claims relying on circumstantial evidence under Title VII, as established by the U.S. Supreme Court case, McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. Under this framework, a plaintiff suing for gender discrimination under Title VII for an involuntary transfer bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. If a plaintiff can prove a prima facie case, then they enjoy a rebuttable presumption of discrimination. A key element in the McDonnell Douglas prima facie case for an employee suing for an involuntary transfer is the requirement that the employee demonstrate they were subjected to an adverse employment action. The recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, has made it easier for employees to establish their prima facie case in employment discrimination actions, particularly when challenging an involuntary transfer, by setting a lower benchmark for adverse employment actions.

Muldrow v. City of St. Louis

Sergeant Muldrow served as a plainclothes officer in the St. Louis Police Department's Intelligence Division from 2008 to 2017, where she tackled public corruption, human trafficking, and led the Gang and Gun Crimes units. Her exemplary work earned her a deputation as a Task Force Officer with the FBI, extending her investigative reach beyond St. Louis and including other job perks such as FBI credentials, and an unmarked take home vehicle. Despite being recognized as a dependable "workhorse" by her outgoing commander, a new commander sought her transfer, preferring a male officer for what he deemed "very dangerous" work. Consequently, Muldrow was reassigned to a uniformed role, maintaining her rank and pay but with altered responsibilities, such as supervising neighborhood patrols, a shift from her prior high-stakes investigative work; and, lost her FBI credentials, along with the unmarked take home vehicle. Additionally, her work schedule underwent a drastic alteration; where she once had a consistent Monday-to-Friday routine, she now found had a rotating schedule which frequently required her to work during the weekends. 

Muldrow contested her transfer from the Intelligence Division, claiming sex-based discrimination that altered the terms and conditions of her employment. She argued that the move stripped her of a prestigious role within the Police Department, limiting her to administrative duties and reducing her opportunities for important investigative work and networking with higher-ups. Additionally, she suffered losses in material benefits, such as her regular weekday schedule and access to a take-home vehicle, transitioning to a less favorable rotating schedule with minimal weekends off. Muldrow argued that Title VII prohibits such employment modifications based on sex, underscoring the adverse impact of the transfer on her professional standing and work conditions. 

The City of St. Louis filed a motion for summary judgment and the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Missouri granted the City’s motion. The district court's decision was based on Circuit precedent which required Muldrow to demonstrate that her transfer resulted in a significant change in employment conditions, leading to a material employment disadvantage. However, the district court found that Muldrow did not meet this standard as there was no change in her salary or rank, and the loss of networking opportunities in the Intelligence division was deemed inconsequential without evidence of career harm. Additionally, her supervisory role remained unchanged, indicating no significant alteration in work responsibilities. The district court also dismissed the impact of the rotating schedule and the loss of a take-home vehicle, citing them as minor changes that did not constitute material harm. 

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court's decision, concurring that Muldrow failed to demonstrate that her job transfer constituted a materially significant disadvantage. The Eighth Circuit emphasized her transfer did not result in a diminution to her title, salary, or benefits, and she offered no evidence that she “suffered a significant change in working conditions or responsibilities, at most, [she] expressed a mere preference for one position over the other.” In other words, the Eighth Circuit deemed the alteration in Muldrow’s job responsibilities too minor to substantiate a Title VII discrimination claim. Despite Muldrow's assertions that her new role was more administrative and less prestigious, the Eighth Circuit found no substantial evidence to support this and dismissed her perspective as unpersuasive. Additionally, the Eighth Circuit did not consider changes to Muldrow's schedule or the loss of a company car significant enough to warrant discussion. In conclusion, the Eighth Circuit determined that Muldrow's transfer did not significantly alter her working conditions and, therefore, her claim could not advance.

United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision, vacated and remanded.

In the opinion, written by Justice Kagan, it was clarified that under Title VII, the burden on Muldrow was simply to demonstrate that the job transfer resulted in a negative alteration of employment conditions due to gender. The Court specified that while an employee must prove harm from an involuntary transfer to succeed in a Title VII claim, it is not necessary for the harm to pass a test of significance. Further, the Court ruled a plaintiff need not demonstrate that an employer’s discriminatory action caused a “significant” disadvantage in the workplace. Rather, a plaintiff merely must demonstrate they suffered “some harm” as regards a term or condition of their employment. The Court explained that the language of Title VII does not set such a stringent requirement, and insisting on significance would mean imposing additional terms not intended by Congress. There was a circuit split on evaluating the standard of harm required for a plaintiff to establish an adverse employment action under Title VII. The Muldrow decision by the Supreme Court has effectively lowered the threshold for employees to establish an adverse employment action alleging workplace discrimination stemming from involuntary transfers.