BFV Perspectives, Navigating HR, | Apr 22, 2024

Supreme Court Eases Standard to Prove Discriminatory Transfers

The United States Supreme Court has issued a ruling that makes it easier for employees to raise discrimination claims related to job transfers.  As explained below, employers should take note of this decision because it is likely to result in an increase of discrimination claims stemming from job transfers – even when no significant financial impact exists.

The Court’s Ruling

On April 17, 2024, the Supreme Court held in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, that an employee bringing a claim for discrimination under Title VII related to a job transfer need only show some employment disadvantage resulting from the transfer.   Therefore, the employee is no longer required to show a “significant” or “material” disadvantage.

The Court’s Rationale

The Court analyzed the plain language of Title VII and ruled that there is no clear language in the statute that requires a showing of substantial harm.  Rather, the court ruled that under Title VII an employee who complains of a job transfer must show only “some harm” respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment:

“There is nothing in the provision to distinguish, as the courts below did, between transfers causing significant disadvantages and transfers causing not-so-significant ones. And there is nothing to otherwise establish an elevated threshold of harm.  To demand “significance” 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.”

Examples of “some harm” could be a schedule change from working days to nights or working weekdays to weekends. Other examples include a reduction in the scope of supervisory duties or promotional opportunities.

Why is this Decision Important?

There are two key reasons why this decision is important.

  1. The Court resolved a split among the federal circuit court of appeals regarding the amount of harm necessary to assert a Title VII claim related to a job transfer. Several circuits (including the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th, 8th, 10th and 11th circuits) previously held that the amount of harm must be material or serious.
  2. It will be easier for employees to assert discrimination claims when they are unhappy about a job transfer.
Significance to Employers

Employers must appreciate that they can be sued for job transfers even if the transferred employee does not suffer a reduction in pay, benefits, or job level.  There is also the possibility that the Court’s ruling may give rise to other Title VII claims based on day-to-day decisions that do not cause a material change in an employee’s terms and conditions of employment.  In sum, this decision is scary and should be taken seriously as it could result in a noticeable increase of discrimination claims based on job transfers and other management decisions.

Steps Employers Should Take

Employers should carefully scrutinize any decision to transfer an employee. It is important that any transfer decision be based on legitimate business reasons.  Because the core of a discrimination claim is alleged disparate treatment, employers should carefully examine whether similarly situated employees are being treated equally. To this end, HR professionals may have to spend more time discussing and evaluating transfer recommendations by supervisors.

As always, please let me know if I can help with a terminated employee matter, an employment contract review, or other any other employment matters.


BFV Perspectives, Navigating HR, | Apr 22, 2024
Kenneth N. Winkler
Kenneth N. Winkler

Kenneth Winklera shareholder at Berman Fink Van Horn, helps employers navigate the employment laws and regulations that govern the workplace.