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Recent Supreme Court Decision Clarifies Lower Standard of Harm for Job Transfers under Title VII

Labor & Employment Publications

In a recent decision, Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the standard for determining whether an adverse employment action is a sufficient basis for a discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Reversing the holding of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that a plaintiff must show a “materially significant disadvantage,” the Court found that a plaintiff need only show “some” harm resulting from a discriminatory change in the terms or conditions of their employment.


St. Louis Police Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow sued the City of St. Louis under Title VII for allegedly transferring her to a less desirable job based on her gender. Muldrow previously worked as a plainclothes officer within the police department’s specialized Intelligence Division. Her superior requested Muldrow’s transfer to replace her with a male police officer. According to her testimony, the commander replaced Muldrow because he believed that a man would be a better fit for the dangerous work associated with the role.

The Department approved the transfer request and reassigned Muldrow to a new position. While Muldrow did not lose any pay or rank, her new position involved changes in her responsibilities and schedule, and she lost access to her take-home vehicle.

Rejection of heightened standard

Applying precedent in the Eighth Circuit, the district court rejected Muldrow’s claim, holding that she failed to show a “significant” change in working conditions that produced a “material employment disadvantage.” In addition to noting that she did not experience any loss of pay or rank, the court observed that Muldrow did not demonstrate that the reassignment would harm her career prospects or that she suffered a significant alteration of her work responsibilities. The district court found that the changes to Muldrow’s schedule and loss of her car were “minor alterations of employment, rather than material harms.” The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the contention that a heightened standard of harm was required to assert a Title VII claim. Nothing in the language of Title VII, the Court held, suggests an elevated threshold requiring a “significant” disadvantage. The Court also rejected the City’s argument that lowering the standard would lead to more litigation, explaining that Title VII still requires some injury relating to terms and conditions of employment as well as some showing that the employer acted discriminatorily based on a protected class.

Applying this standard to Muldrow’s case, the Supreme Court concluded that her transfer met the threshold “with room to spare.” The Court observed that Muldrow moved from a position where she previously had the opportunity to work with police commanders of higher rank and had substantial responsibility over a wide range of investigations, to a position where she was less involved in high visibility matters and primarily performed administrative work. Further, Muldrow transitioned to a less regular schedule which included weekend work and lost her Department-issued vehicle. These facts, according to the Court, met the necessary requirements of harm under Title VII.

Implications for employers

Whether or not it results in a flood of new litigation, this decision will certainly tip the balance in favor of employees in cases involving relatively minor changes to terms and conditions of employment. When considering lateral transfers or changes to employees’ schedules or job assignments, employers should not assume that those actions are immune from challenge under Title VII simply because they do not involve a change in the employee’s job title or pay. If you have any questions regarding this decision or its implications, please reach out to any Franczek attorney.