Significant Harm Not Required for Discrimination Suit, SCOTUS Rules

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an employee need not show significant harm in employment discrimination suits involving job transfers. As long as an employee can show some type of harm, a discrimination lawsuit under federal law can move forward.

The case, Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, involved a police sergeant for the St. Louis Police Department’s Intelligence Division who said she was transferred out of the division because she is a woman. The plaintiff, Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow, had held a position in the Intelligence Division from 2008 to 2017, when a new commander transferred her out of the unit to be replaced by a male police officer. As an officer in the Intelligence Division, Sergeant Muldrow investigated public corruption and human trafficking cases, headed the Gun Crimes Unit, and oversaw the Gang Unit. She also had FBI credentials. Despite positive reviews from the outgoing commander, Sergeant Muldrow was transferred against her wishes.

Though her compensation and rank were the same after her transfer to a new position in the department, her job changed in other ways. Instead of working with high-ranking officials on Intelligence Division priorities, she was tasked with supervising the activities of neighborhood patrol officers, approving arrests, reviewing reports, and handling additional administrative matters. She lost her FBI status, her take-home vehicle, and her Monday-through-Friday schedule, having instead to work on a rotating schedule that included weekends.

A federal district court sided with the police department in the Title VII suit, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed, stating that because there was no “diminution to [the plaintiff’s] title, salary, or benefits,” the discrimination was not “significant.” However, the Supreme Court reversed. Justice Elena Kagan, writing the majority opinion, stated that the federal ban on employment discrimination is broader than economic discrimination, and includes discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment. There is nothing in the law that requires a plaintiff to show that the harm incurred was significant.

The opinion states, “‘Discriminate against’ means treat worse, here based on sex. [citation omitted] But neither that phrase nor any other says anything about how much worse. There is nothing in the provision to distinguish, as the courts below did, between transfers causing significant disadvantages and transfers causing not-so-significant ones.” 

Justice Alito, writing in his concurrence, called the majority opinion “unhelpful,” though he agreed with the outcome of the case. Justice Kavanaugh’s concurrence disagreed with the standard that “some harm” must be shown beyond the harm of being transferred based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, noting that the discrimination itself is harm, and it is only necessary to show some change in compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.

Additional Reading

Job transfers can be discriminatory without needing to show significant harm, SCOTUS rules, ABA Journal (April 17, 2024)

The Supreme Court opens the door to more discrimination claims involving job transfers, NPR (April 17, 2024)

Title VII and Employees’ Legal Rights, Justia

Image Credit: Cagkan Sayin /