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On December 6, 2023, the US Supreme Court heard arguments for Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, which may have significant implications for discrimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Specifically, the Supreme Court in this case could clarify whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires a clear showing of significant disadvantage or tangible harm to have an actionable claim.

Muldrow centers around a St. Louis Police Department sergeant, Sergeant Muldrow, who was transferred from a position in the department’s intelligence division to the department’s Fifth District division. Even though the new position provided Sergeant Muldrow with the same pay and the same title, the transfer changed her schedule, overtime opportunities, prestige, and comfort of work clothing. Additionally, Sergeant Muldrow’s replacement at the intelligence division was a man. Sergeant Muldrow alleges that her lateral transfer within the department was motivated by gender bias and violated Title VII.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin regarding the worker’s compensation, conditions, or privileges of employment. To successfully establish a prima facia case of discrimination under Title VII, the plaintiffs must show they suffered an adverse employment action. As the law currently stands, most federal jurisdictions require a showing of material disadvantage or harm to establish that the employee suffered an adverse employment action.

Correspondingly, the lower courts ruled against Sergeant Muldrow because she failed to establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination under Title VII. Specifically, the lower courts found that Sergeant Muldrow had not proven that the transfer amounted to “a tangible change in working conditions that produced a material employment disadvantage.”

Now, the Supreme Court is considering whether Title VII prohibits discrimination in employer transfer decisions without additional proof that the transfer caused tangible harm or significant disadvantage. During oral argument on December 6, 2023, the justices seemed inclined to acknowledge that discriminatory intent alone could constitute harm, signaling potential support for Sergeant Muldrow and her arguments. Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh highlighted the inherently discriminatory nature of differential treatment based on race or sex, suggesting that tangible harm might not be a prerequisite for establishing discrimination under Title VII.

Given that at the core of this case is the question of whether Title VII necessitates tangible harm as a prerequisite for proving employment discrimination in transfer decisions, the ramifications of the case extend beyond Muldrow’s situation, potentially setting a precedent for broader interpretations of Title VII. Some legal experts argue that a broad ruling favoring Muldrow will open the door to more discrimination challenges that were otherwise barred due to this significant hurdle. Other experts note that the broader interpretation may place at risk DEI programs or other initiatives geared towards minority employees because there would no longer be a requirement that employees provide evidence they were harmed by the employer’s practices to successfully assert a claim. Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision could significantly redefine actionable claims under Title VII and impact the landscape of workplace discrimination litigation.

Stay tuned to Hunton’s L&E Blog for further developments and the Court’s decision on this crucial matter.