U.S. Supreme Court Lightens Burden For Employees Claiming Discriminatory Job Transfers

Yesterday, the United State Supreme Court made it easier for employees to recover in Title VII lawsuits. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that an unwanted job transfer coming with no discernable change in pay or benefits is sufficient to constitute an adverse employment action under the law, as long as there is “some injury” or that the employee was “worse off” after the transfer. In Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, the Court reversed the dismissal of a suit brought by a police officer who claimed that she was transferred out of a police intelligence department by a new supervisor who wanted a male in the position. The lower courts had concluded that the transfer – which was not a demotion nor a discharge, and did not result in any change in compensation - did not create a “materially significant disadvantage” and, thus, did not constitute an employment action sufficiently adverse to sustain a Title VII claim. The officer argued, however, that the new position negatively impacted her career prospects, was less prestigious, had fewer responsibilities and provided her with less contact with top brass, and therefore should be viewed as an adverse employment action.

In reversing, Justice Kagan wrote in the majority opinion, “Although an employee must show some harm for a forced transfer to prevail in a Title VII suit, she need not show that the injury satisfies a significance test. Title VII’s text nowhere establishes that high bar.” While the decision was unanimous in result – sending the case back to the trial court to be re-opened – several Justices wrote that the decision changed nothing. In response, Justice Kagan emphasized that the decision changed the law in any court requiring a Title VII plaintiff to show “significant,” “material” or “serious” injury before a case could proceed. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers federal courts in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee was not one of those courts that did require significant harm. The question in Sixth Circuit courts now becomes how low the “some harm” bar will go: an issue that will surely be tested in the coming years.

Nemeth Bonnette Brouwer PC will monitor this and all other developments in Title VII discrimination cases. In the meantime, feel free to contact any of the attorneys at the firm with your questions. 

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