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Rand L. Stephens & Richard Koss

Supreme Court Spells Out Title VII for Lower Courts: No Employment Discrimination Means No Employment Discrimination. Period.

gender based discrimination

Just last week, the United States Supreme Court handed down a significant ruling on employment discrimination claims under Title VII. The decision is a win for employees everywhere who have suffered unlawful discrimination at work, particularly in jurisdictions where the courts were imposing a high bar on their claims that doesn’t exist in the plain language of Title VII. Read on to learn about the Court’s recent decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, and contact San Francisco employment law attorney Richard Koss if you have been the victim of unlawful workplace discrimination in the Bay Area.

Background of the Case

Jaytonya Clayborn Muldrow is a sergeant in the St. Louis Police Department. Between 2008 and 2017, Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the department’s Intelligence Division, where she investigated serious offenses such as human trafficking and public corruption. Her job duties included working with high-ranking officials within the department regarding Intelligence Division priorities. Her position also made her a deputized Task Force Officer with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a status which granted her FBI credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle, and other perquisites.

In 2017, a new Intelligence Division commander took over and requested that Muldrow be transferred out of the unit, despite Muldrow being commended to him as a “workhorse” by the new commander’s predecessor. Instead, it is alleged, the new commander preferred to replace Muldrow with a male police officer. The transfer went through over Muldrow’s objections, and she was reassigned to a uniformed position.

Although Muldrow kept her same rank and pay, she lost her status with the FBI and along with it the unmarked take-home vehicle and other perks. Her job duties also shifted from working with higher-ups in the department to supervising the daily activities of patrol officers and even going on patrol herself at times. Her schedule also changed from a regular Monday to Friday workweek to a rotating schedule that regularly included weekend shifts.

Muldrow sued the city in federal court, claiming her forced transfer was a gender-based decision and therefore amounted to unlawful employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She lost her case in the trial court, however, when the judge dismissed her claim because Muldrow failed to show that the transfer caused a “significant” change in her working conditions which produced a “material employment disadvantage.”

Muldrow lost again on appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for the same reasons, setting up her appeal to the High Court, which accepted her writ of certiorari on June 30, 2023, limited to the following question: Does Title VII prohibit discrimination in transfer decisions absent a separate court determination that the transfer decision caused a significant disadvantage?

Both parties submitted written briefs to the Court, and organizations such as the National Employment Lawyers Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several others filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs as well. The case was slated for oral argument and argued before the Court on December 6, 2023. On April 17, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its judgment, vacating the lower court rulings and sending the case back to the trial in a unanimous 9-0 decision.

The Court’s holding was straightforward and simple: “An employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII must show that the transfer brought about some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment, but that harm need not be significant.” The court rejected the requirements imposed by the lower courts on Title VII claims that any disadvantage caused by a job transfer or other action must be “materially significant” or cause more than “minor changes in working conditions.”

In other words, Title VII is clear. An employee may not be discriminated against based on sex (or other protected characteristics) with respect to the terms and conditions of employment. Any adverse job action, such as a forced transfer, that changes the worker’s employment conditions necessarily implicates Title VII. Although the employee must show that the employee has been somehow disadvantaged, nowhere in Title VII does it say that disadvantage must be “significant” or “material.” This higher bar was added by the courts, which the Supreme Court in Muldrow held to be erroneous.

The fact that Muldrow’s transfer was “forced” over her objections in itself might be enough to show it disadvantaged her, but regardless there appears to be plenty of evidence that her working conditions changed to her detriment, even though her rank and pay stayed the same. In its ruling, the Court vacated the trial court’s decision and remanded the case, or sent it back to the trial level, where a jury can decide whether the changes wrought by Muldrow’s transfer damaged her and amounted to unlawful job discrimination, without the court imposing a “significant-injury requirement.”

Contact Bay Area Employment Lawyer Richard Koss to Fight Workplace Discrimination in San Francisco

In removing the “significant-injury requirement” that some courts were adding to Title VII claims, the Supreme Court issued a decision that itself is extremely significant. It removes a barrier to justice many employees were experiencing and reinforces the landmark employment protections of Title VII, now entering their 60th year. If you are a California employer navigating employment decisions in a complex world, or an employee who has been unlawfully discriminated against at work, contact attorney Richard Koss for practical advice and effective representation by calling 650-722-7046 on the San Francisco Peninsula, or 925-757-1700 in the East Bay.

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