On Wednesday April 17, 2024, the US Supreme Court in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, et al. issued a precedential ruling that will likely pave the way for more employee discrimination claims under Title VII. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that Title VII prohibits discriminatory job transfers even if they do not result in a “materially significant disadvantage” to the employee. The Court clarified that an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII must establish “some harm” with respect to the terms and conditions of employment, but that such harm “need not be significant.”

Procedural posture

By way of background, Jatonya Muldrow, a sergeant with the City of St. Louis police department, filed a Title VII suit against the city alleging sex discrimination based upon her reassignment to a different department against her wishes, which she claimed diminished her career prospects.  Muldrow’s claim was dismissed by the district court because she failed to demonstrate sufficient harm resulting from the transfer, as she had not suffered any economic damages. The dismissal was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit, which ruled that the transfer alone was insufficient to establish her Title VII claim and that she had not established harm under the Eighth Circuit’s test because she failed to demonstrate that the transfer imposed a “materially significant disadvantage.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling

In its opinion, the Court vacated the Eighth Circuit’s ruling and held that Title VII prohibits discrimination with respect to the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment but does not expressly require harm, let alone the “significant” harm standard used by the Eighth Circuit in its ruling. The Court reasoned that employees must establish “some injury” with respect to the terms and conditions of employment, but that the plain language of Title VII does not require an employee to establish a heightened “significant” or “substantial” harm when alleging a discriminatory transfer under Title VII. In dicta, the Court suggested that an employee maintaining the same title, rank and compensation level when transferred does not provide a viable defense to employers faced with discriminatory transfer claims.

With respect to Muldrow, the Court noted that allegations demonstrating that the transfer “left her worse off” – if proven – are sufficient to establish her Title VII claim. The Court further suggested that Muldrow’s allegations (which included being moved out of a prestigious unit, having a less regular schedule and more weekend work, and loss of her take-home car) meet the new standard “with room to spare.”

Impact of this ruling

The Court’s ruling resolves a split among federal Circuit courts which, to date, have applied differing standards for the level of harm needed to maintain a Title VII claim.1 In fact, the Court’s opinion explicitly instructed lower courts to eliminate any “significance” requirement under the law, stating “[t]his decision changes the legal standard used in any circuit that has previously required ‘significant,’ ‘material,’ or ‘serious’ injury.”

As such, it will now be easier for employees to allege and prove Title VII discrimination claims based upon transfers or reassignments. Moving forward, an employee need only show that a transfer leaves them worse off in some term or condition of their employment, without needing to show that the harm is material.  In light of this, employers should exercise additional caution when managing such employment actions and confer with legal counsel before implementing transfers and reassignments.

If you have any questions about the implications of the Court’s ruling, Reed Smith’s experienced employment attorneys are available to help.

  1. Compare Caraballo-Caraballo v. Correctional Admin., 892 F.3d 53 (1st Cir. 2018) (“materially changes” employment conditions in a manner “more disruptive than a mere inconvenience or an alteration of job responsibilities”); Williams v. R.H. Donnelley, Corp., 368 F.3d 123 (2d Cir. 2004) (“materially significant disadvantage”); James  v. Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Inc., 368 F. 3d 371 (4th Cir. 2004) (“significant detrimental effect”); O’Neal v. Chicago, 392 F. 3d 909 (7th Cir. 2004) (“materially adverse”); Sanchez v. Denver Public Schools, 164 F. 3d 527  (10th Cir. 1998) (“significant change”); and Webb-Edwards v. Orange Cty. Sheriff’s Office, 525 F. 3d 1013 (11th Cir. 2008) (“serious and material change”), with Chambers v. District of Columbia, 35 F. 4th 870, 872 (D.C. Cir. 2022) (en banc) (overruling precedent that demanded an “objectively tangible harm” and rejecting a “material adversity” requirement).  ↩︎