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Employment and Labor

Supreme Court Says Forced Job Transfers Must Cause Harm, But it Doesn’t Have to be Significant

Supreme Court Says Forced Job Transfers Must Cause Harm, But it Doesn’t Have to be Significant

In Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, the U.S. Supreme Court considered what protections Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides to employees who claim they were the victims of a discriminatory transfer. 

On April 17, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, finding that an employee challenging a forced job transfer must show that the transfer caused some harm with respect to the terms or conditions of their employment. Importantly, however, the Court noted that this harm need not be significant. In so doing, the Supreme Court rejected the approach previously taken by many federal courts which had required a showing that the harm was significant. In Muldrow, the Supreme Court determined that while an employee must show some harm from a forced transfer, the employee need not satisfy any sort of significance test.

A Re-Assigned Officer

The facts of this case concerned Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow, a female officer in the St. Louis Police Department who, until 2017, worked in a specialized division in the Department which afforded her certain job perks. These included working in plainclothes rather than a uniform, a relatively stable Monday to Friday schedule, FBI credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle, and the ability to participate in outside investigations. But in 2017 when the division’s commander changed, the new commander sought to transfer Sergeant Muldrow out of the division and replace her with a male officer he believed would be a better fit. Although Muldrow protested against the transfer, the Department ultimately approved it and reassigned her to a uniformed job in a different unit.

The transfer did not affect Muldrow’s rank or pay; however, she lost access to her FBI credentials and take-home vehicle, as well as the stability of her previous schedule. Her new role placed her instead on a rotating schedule that involved weekend shifts. Additionally, rather than allowing her to work with high-ranking officials from her previous division, her new position required her to supervise day-to-day activities of patrol officers. This mostly involved administrative work, as well as some patrol work.

Muldrow sued the City under Title VII, alleging that in transferring her from her previous division, the City discriminated against Muldrow based on her sex. Muldrow argued that even though the transfer kept her rank and pay, it nonetheless cost her other benefits, such as the opportunity to network with high-ranking officers and the chance to work in a premier division in the Department. Muldrow alleged that she was instead forced to work on less prestigious assignments, with few weekends off. Because the City’s decision was allegedly made because of her sex, Muldrow contended, its actions were discriminatory and in violation of the law.

The City Prevails in the Lower Courts

The lower courts disagreed, finding Muldrow’s allegations to be insufficient to state a claim under Title VII. Relying on precedent, both the district court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit found Muldrow was required to show her transfer caused not just a change to her working conditions, but a “significant” one which put her at a “material employment disadvantage.” Both lower courts found that the transfer did not effect significant enough changes to her job to support her Title VII claim. This analysis was in line with many other, but not all, circuits which also found transfers required more than just a mere showing of harm. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve this split amongst the federal circuits over whether a transfer must meet a heightened threshold of harm.

Supreme Court Finds No Significant Harm Required

Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan disapproved of the approach of the Eighth Circuit—as well as the other circuits which had similar approaches—finding nothing in the text of Title VII imposes an elevated burden for a plaintiff challenging an allegedly discriminatory transfer decision. While noting Title VII requires a plaintiff to show that a transfer worked some “disadvantageous” change to the terms and conditions of their employment, the Court nonetheless rejected the reasoning of lower courts which had grafted a “significance” test—or something similar requiring the plaintiff to show the transfer’s effect was “serious,” “substantial”, or any other heightened bar—onto the law.

Looking to the plain text of Title VII, the Court noted the statute states a plaintiff must show they have been discriminated against. Importantly, no language exists qualifying how much worse a transfer must be to satisfy this harm threshold. To demand such a showing, the Court found, would be to add words to the statute, something courts are not permitted to do. The Court noted that Congress could have limited liability for job transfers to only those transfers causing a significant disadvantage. But that decision is for Congress to make, the Court observed, and Congress ultimately decided not to do so. The role of courts is not to re-write a statute or to insert language that does not appear in the text; rather, the role of courts is to interpret the statute as written.

Future Implications

This decision by the Supreme Court will necessitate a change for many federal circuits’ approach to Title VII actions which challenge job transfers, as many had previously required plaintiffs challenging transfer decisions show a heightened degree of harm. The Eleventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, had required a showing of a “serious and material change,” for example. No longer.

In this way, Muldrow arguably lowers the threshold for bringing Title VII lawsuits based on forced transfers in the workplace. While the Court was skeptical that this decision would open the proverbial floodgates of litigation, employers must still be mindful of possible inadvertent consequences when making transfer decisions given all an employee must now show is some form of harm resulting from the transfer. Lateral transfers, which may not change things such as rank and pay, may nonetheless be considered adverse employment actions if they have other, harmful effects such as those affecting the employee’s responsibilities, perks, and schedule.

In order to minimize potential liability, employers should try to limit discretionary transfers, garner consent from the employee being transferred, and create transparent procedures regarding the grounds on which transfers may and may not be based. Training on these processes to reinforce these procedures is also encouraged to ensure transfers will not have unanticipated effects. Those employers who collectively bargain with their employees also need to review any bargaining agreements for transfer language to make sure any procedures and training comply with these contracts. Implementing these actions up front can result in less expenditure of valuable time and resources on the backend, and hopefully foreclose frivolous lawsuits.