Discriminatory Job Transfer Can be Actionable Without Significant Harm

The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that an employee who brings a lawsuit alleging she was transferred to another position for a discriminatory reason does not have to prove the transfer caused her significant harm.

Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow is a police sergeant in the St. Louis Police Department.  She served as a plainclothes officer in the Department’s specialized Intelligence Division. In that position, she investigated public corruption and human trafficking cases, oversaw the Gang Unit, and was the head of the Gun Crimes Unit.  As part of her position, she also was a Task Force Officer with the FBI, which gave her FBI credentials, an unmarked vehicle that she took home, and the right to conduct investigations outside of St. Louis.

Female police officer can proceed with her claim that she was demoted due to her gender.After a new Intelligence Division commander took over the Division, he decided to transfer Sergeant Muldrow out of the unit so he could replace her with a male Sergeant who he considered a better fit for the unit’s “very dangerous” work. As a result, Sergeant Muldrow was reassigned to a uniformed position in its Fifth District.

Sergeant Muldrow sued, claiming St. Louis had engaged in gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VII is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin and religion.

The District Court dismissed Sergeant Muldrow’s lawsuit on the basis that her transfer did not cause her a “significant” disadvantage. On appeal, the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and affirmed the dismissal of her case.

However, the Supreme Court disagreed.  Specifically, on April 17, 2024, in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, it ruled that an employee who claims she was forced to transfer to another position for a discriminatory reason does not need to show she experienced a “significant” injury as a result.

As the Court explained, Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to 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.”  The Court ruled that an employee who brings a claim alleging a discriminatory transfer must show:

  1. She was transferred to another position;
  2. The transfer occurred because of her race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;
  3. The transfer caused her to experience some harm; and
  4. The harm caused by the transfer relates to an “identifiable term or condition of employment.”

The Court made it clear the employee does not have to show the harm caused by the transfer was significant,” “serious,” “substantial,” or anything else beyond showing it was discriminator and caused some harm with respect to a term or condition of employment.

The Supreme Court recognized that Sergeant Muldrow alleges she was transferred to a lesser position because she is a woman, and the transfer implicated terms and conditions of her employment since it changed the “what, where, and when of her police work.”  Accordingly, it reversed the Eighth Circuit’s ruling that dismissed Sergeant Muldrow’s case. It remanded the case to determine whether her evidence was, in fact, sufficient to support her claim.

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