U.S. Supreme Court Lowers Bar for Proving Discrimination Claims 
U.S. Supreme Court Lowers Bar for Proving Discrimination Claims 

On April 17, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision which will make it easier for employees to establish discrimination under Title VII of the U.S Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the case of Muldrow v. City of St. Louis (USSC Case No. 22-193), the Court held that an employee need only show that an employment action brought about "some harm to an identifiable term or condition of employment," as opposed to "materially significant disadvantage” in those terms or conditions. The Court expressly acknowledged that this is a less burdensome standard than those which had been adopted by federal appellate courts in the past, and that "many cases will come out differently" under this new standard. 

The case involved the transfer of City of St. Louis Police Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow from a plainclothes job in the Department's specialized Intelligence Division to a uniformed officer position elsewhere in the Department. Prior to her transfer, Muldrow investigated public corruption and human trafficking cases, oversaw a gang unit, and served as the head of a gun crimes unit, while also being deputized as a task force officer with the FBI, with Bureau credentials that permitted her to use an unmarked take-home vehicle.

In her new position, Muldrow supervised the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers, including approving their arrests, reviewing reports, and handling other administrative matters, while doing some patrol work but without the FBI status or vehicle that came with the prior position. Muldrow also worked a traditional Monday through Friday workweek in her prior position, but was placed on a rotating schedule that included weekend shifts after her transfer.  Muldrow alleged that the Intelligence Division Commander made the transfer because he wanted a male police officer for the position due to his belief that a male officer would be a “better fit" for the Division's "very dangerous work."

The Court held that these allegations easily met the test for establishing a claim for sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, because they left Muldrow “worse off" than she previously was. The Court accordingly reversed the decision of a federal appeals court which had dismissed her case on the ground that the transfer did not effectuate a "significant change in working conditions" due to the fact that Muldrow did not experience a change in salary or rank, and that the transfer did not harm her career prospects. In doing so, the Court disapproved of past cases that held that employees could not prove discrimination when they were merely transferred to a new job site, required to take a position involving only nighttime work, or were forced to work in only an administrative role, while retaining the pay and benefits of their prior positions. 

The Court rejected the City’s contention that the “significant harm” test that applies to retaliation claims should be applied to discrimination cases, reasoning that the stricter standard is applied to such claims because a victim of retaliation must be able to show that the action they were subjected to was enough to “dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination."  The Court justified its decision by stating that Congress only made it unlawful for an employer to take an employment action against an employee "because of" their race, sex, or some other prohibited criteria, and that grafting onto the law an additional requirement that it cause the employee a "significant disadvantage" was not warranted.  

Please contact the author of this article or your usual attorney at AALRR if you have any questions about this decision or how it might affect any employment decisions that you may be contemplating. 

This AALRR publication is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. AALRR is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process. 

© 2024 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo 

Categories: Litigation

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