Supreme Court Decision Makes It Easier To Sue For Workplace Discrimination Involving Forced Job Transfers

On April 17, 2024, the Supreme Court delivered a big win for workers and workplace equality, making it easier for workers transferred from one job to another against their will to pursue job discrimination claims (including those based on sex, race, religion or national origin) under Federal Civil Rights law. This also includes instances where workers are not demoted or docked pay. 

We’re going to dive into the background of this case below and explain what this means for workplace discrimination claims moving forward.

A Job Transfer Based on Discrimination

The case on everyone’s radar right now was brought by police Sergeant Jaytona Clayborn Muldrow, who claimed she was transferred out of her job as a plainclothes officer in the intelligence department of the St. Louis Police Department because she is a woman. Her tenure in that department lasted from 2008 to 2017, where her work included investigating cases involving public corruption and human trafficking, overseeing the Gang Unit, serving as head of the Gun Crimes Unit, and working as a task force officer with the FBI. 

Despite high employment evaluations, a new commander reassigned Muldrow to a uniformed job supervising patrol officers at the same pay rate as her previous job. Muldrow’s attorneys argued the new commander took this decision because he wanted a male officer in the intelligence role, which led to her decision to sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. 

The Supreme Court’s Decision

Lower courts dismissed Muldrow’s claim, concluding she had not suffered a significant job disadvantage. That’s what makes the Supreme Court’s decision fascinating: the definition of what constitutes “significant” job disadvantage has changed to become more broad.

The Supreme Court decided in this case that an employee must show some harm but does not need to show that the harm is “significant” or “material.” Justice Elena Kagan stated that “whether the harm is significant” is “in the eye of the beholder.” To prove the point, she cites examples where the lower courts have ruled circumstances to not be significant: 

  • An engineering tech assigned to a new 14×22 ft. wind tunnel as their new job site. (the harm is in the eye of the beholder: a wind tunnel is a very, very different environment than the tech might have been used to)
  • A shipping worker reassigned to nighttime-only work (once again, the harm is in the eye of the beholder: working at nighttime only can change an employee’s relationship with family, their mental health, and their whole work-life balance)
  • A school principal forced into a new, administrative job not based in a school and supervising fewer employees (as a school principal, you have invested countless hours into training and career development to work in schools, so being transferred outside of school and supervising fewer people could actually derail career development and make them less able to get to the next level of compensation within the education space.

In these situations, the harm is truly in the eye of the beholder; some changes that come with a job transfer can lead to disadvantages that may be less apparent until you dive deeper into the individual’s situation and background.

Implications of this Supreme Court Decision

Kagan also explained that where an employee shows some harm because of discrimination based on sex, race or national origin, that is enough to show that Title VII has been violated. Madeline Meth, one of Muldrow’s lawyers and a professor at Boston University’s law school, says the decision is a huge win for workers because SCOTUS made it clear that employers cannot decide “the who, what, when, where and why of a job based on race and gender.” This arguably increases the scope of workplace scenarios, including those of job transfers, that may be considered workplace discrimination. 

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, another Supreme Court judge, wrote that he’s in favor of a less complicated approach: if a job transfer is based on sex, race, religion or national origin, it is discriminatory—period—whether or not it causes concrete harm. While Kavanaugh noted that this new some-harm requirement “appears to be a relatively low bar,” the bar would be easily met by anyone experiencing workplace discrimination.

Because this decision lowers the burden of proof for what counts as a material or concrete disadvantage as a result of a job transfer, it is believed that this could open the door to more unjust job transfers being challenged in court as a result of discrimination. Not only should employees feel more protected as a result, but also employers will want to be very careful to 1) never discriminate against their employees, 2) never force a job transfer upon someone, and 3) ensure that job transfers result in an even situation for their employees, so that no disadvantage or harm is caused to that individual.

Muldrow’s case will now return to lower courts where it will be argued that because of sex discrimination, she was made to take a less prestigious, administrative position that required weekend work combined with the loss of her take-home car privileges. 

More Resources Helping You Navigate Workplace Discrimination

If you’ve been experiencing discrimination at work, including based on age, gender, race, disability, religious, national origin, hiring discrimination, wrongful suspension, or wrongful termination, contact us for a free consultation with our legal team and join our email list to stay in tune with the latest legal news and additional resources.