Supreme Court: Title VII Job Transfer Claims Need Not Prove "Significant" Harm

Author: Emily Scace, Brightmine Senior Legal Editor

April 18, 2024

An employee challenging a discriminatory job transfer under Title VII need not show that the transfer caused significant harm, the US Supreme Court has ruled. The decision resolves a Circuit split and lowers the bar for an employee to challenge an unwanted job transfer.

The case, Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, was brought by Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow, a sergeant in the St. Louis Police Department who alleged that the department transferred her from a role in its specialized Intelligence Division to a less-prestigious uniformed role on the basis of her sex.

Although Muldrow's rank and pay were unchanged in her new position, her responsibilities, perks and schedule were not. Muldrow's role in the Intelligence Division had given her FBI credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle, a regular Monday through Friday schedule and the authority to pursue investigations outside St. Louis. The role to which she was transferred involved lower-level duties, more administrative work and a rotating schedule that included weekend shifts.

Muldrow brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that the job transfer constituted unlawful sex discrimination. Both the district court that first heard the case and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the City, reasoning that Title VII required her to show that the transfer had caused a "materially significant disadvantage" and characterizing the changes to her job duties as "only minor changes in working conditions" that could not meet that standard.

In a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court vacated the lower court rulings, holding that the text of Title VII does not require an employee challenging an allegedly discriminatory job transfer to meet a "heightened threshold of harm - be it dubbed significant, serious, or something similar" in order to prevail.

The opinion, authored by Justice Elena Kagan, emphasized that although a plaintiff in a Title VII discrimination case must show "some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment," nothing in the text of Title VII requires courts to "distinguish between transfers causing significant disadvantages and transfers causing not-so-significant ones."

In retaining a requirement that a job-transfer case demonstrate some harm, the decision does not go as far as some observers had speculated. Some had predicted that a broad ruling removing the requirement for a Title VII plaintiff to demonstrate harm would open the floodgates for challenges to employers' diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offerings that provided programs such as mentoring and training for disadvantaged groups. But the Court's opinion confined itself to the narrow question of job transfers and did not address these broader questions.

While the outcome was unanimous, Justices Thomas, Alito and Kavanaugh each wrote separate concurring opinions taking issue with an element of the opinion.

Justice Kavanaugh would have had the court hold that all job discriminatory job transfers violate Title VII without the need for a separate showing of harm. "The discrimination is harm," the concurrence noted, and "the only question…is whether the relevant employment action changes the compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. A transfer does so."