Supreme Court Holds That An Employee Challenging a Job Transfer Under Title VII Need Not Show Significant Harm

In Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, the United States Supreme Court held that an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must show that the transfer brought about “some harm” with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment, but she need not show “significant harm,” resolving a Circuit split over the required threshold of harm.

Muldrow, a female sergeant in the St. Louis Police Department, was transferred from the Department’s Specialized Intelligence Division to the Department’s Fifth District. The transfer did not result in any change in her rank or pay, but it did result in changes to her responsibilities, schedule, and perks.

Unhappy with the transfer, Muldrow sued the City under Title VII, claiming that she was the victim of sex discrimination —in other words, that the Department transferred her from one position to the other because she is a woman. The lower courts rejected Muldrow’s claim, holding that she was required to, but could not, show that the transfer resulted in a “materially significant disadvantage.”

In vacating the Eighth Circuit’s judgment and remanding the case for further proceedings, the Court held that the text of Title VII does not require a heightened showing of harm, whether it be called “significant” or “material” or “any similar adjective suggesting that the disadvantage to the employee must exceed a heightened bar.” In so doing, the Court rejected the City’s three main arguments in favor of a significant harm standard.

Regarding the City’s textual argument based on the ejusdem generis cannon (providing that where a general word or phrase follows a list of specific terms, the general word will be interpreted to include only items of a similar nature to the terms specified), the Court noted that the kinds of prohibited discrimination under Title VII, whether pertaining to hiring, firing, compensating or altering the terms or conditions of employment, each occur by way of an employment action. This shared trait, it found, is sufficient to unite the anti-discrimination provision’s several parts, obviating any need to unite them by introducing a significant harm requirement. Regarding the City’s precedent argument, the Court distinguished Title VII’s anti-discrimination provision from the anti-retaliation provision at issue in the decision relied on by the City. And finally, regarding the City’s public policy argument, the Court refused to override Title VII’s text or add words to the law that Congress did not choose to include.

The “some harm” standard established in Muldrow is lower than the “significant harm” or “material harm” standard previously applied by many federal courts, so an uptick in Title VII claims based on job transfers is likely. To mitigate litigation risk, employers should carefully document job transfers and the reasons for the transfers.

Of particular note to our First Circuit readers, the Supreme Court’s decision in Muldrow  abrogates the heightened harm standard articulated by the First Circuit in Caraballo-Caraballo v. Correctional Admin.

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