Kayla Morin Reacts to Muldrow v. City of St. Louis Ruling

April 17, 2024
Kayla Morin

The Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision today in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, clarifying that Title VII plaintiffs need not prove that a discriminatory job transfer caused them a “significant” employment disadvantage to make out a claim for discrimination.

Last fall, Katz Banks Kumin LLP partner Carolyn Wheeler co-authored an amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court in Muldrow on behalf of the National Employment Lawyers Association, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Women’s Law Center.  Ms. Wheeler argued that the text of Title VII does not require that a plaintiff who was transferred for a discriminatory reason prove that the transfer caused her a “significant disadvantage,” and that such a requirement runs counter to the fundamental values in the Civil Rights Act.

The Supreme Court agreed.  Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, holding that a Title VII plaintiff must show that she suffered some harm as a result of a discriminatory transfer, but that that harm need not be significant.  “To demand ‘significance,’” Justice Kagan wrote, “is to add words—and significant words, as it were—to the statute Congress enacted.  It is to impose a new requirement on a Title VII claimant, so that the law as applied demands something more of her than the law as written.”

As discussed in Ms. Wheeler’s blog last fall, Muldrow involved a claim that the City of St. Louis discriminated against Sergeant Jaytona Clayborn Muldrow when it transferred her from one role in the police department to another because she was a woman.   Prior to the transfer, Sergeant Muldrow worked in the police department’s Intelligence Division, where she investigated public corruption and human trafficking cases and worked hand-in-hand with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on serious cases.  She was allowed to use an unmarked take-home vehicle, and she also worked a standard Monday-through-Friday schedule.

The new Intelligence Division commander, however, requested that the department transfer Sergeant Muldrow and replace her with a male officer whom the commander felt was a better fit for the division’s “very dangerous” work.  Seargeant Muldrow protested, but she was ultimately reassigned to a position in which she supervised the day-to-day activities of neighborhood police patrols.  Although her rank and pay in this new role remained the same, she no longer worked on high-profile cases with the FBI, she had to give up her take-home vehicle, and she frequently had to work weekend shifts.

The Eighth Circuit held that Muldrow did not demonstrate that her transfer resulted in a “materially significant disadvantage” because she did not show there was a concomitant “diminution to her title, salary or benefits” as a result of the transfer.  Instead, it found that she experienced “only minor changes in working conditions,” and that therefore her Title VII discrimination claim failed.

The Supreme Court reversed.  It held that the phrase “discriminate against” in Title VII means that a plaintiff must show that she suffered some “disadvantageous change” in an employment term or condition, but that she need not prove that the harm was significant, serious, substantial, “or any similar adjective suggesting that the disadvantage to the employee must exceed a heightened bar.”

Although all nine Justices agreed to vacate the Eighth Circuit’s ruling, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh disagreed with Justice Kagan’s reasoning and filed concurring opinions.   Of note, Justice Kavanaugh argued that an even lower bar for plaintiffs should apply in the context of a discriminatory transfer.  Specifically, he argued that under the text of Title VII, plaintiffs should not be required to show that they suffered any harm so long as they can show that they suffered discrimination.  “[T]he text of Title VII,” he wrote, “does not require a separate showing of harm.  The discrimination is harm.”

It remains to be seen how courts will interpret the Court’s holding that plaintiffs must show “some injury” flowing from a transfer, even if that injury is not significant.  For now, though, the Court’s ruling is an unequivocal win for plaintiffs who no longer have to clear the hurdle of proving that a transfer harmed them in a serious way.  The Court’s ruling reflects the reality that discrimination takes many forms and can affect an employee’s work life in different ways.

If you have suffered discrimination at work, whether termination, demotion, or even a transfer, you may hold a claim against your employer.  Katz Banks Kumin LLP has a team of compassionate, knowledgeable attorneys who can help you determine the best course of action.

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