Employment Law Report

Muldrow v. City of St. Louis: Impact of a Lower Title VII Pleading Threshold for Transferees

Written by:  Sharon Gold with assistance from Ben Schaeffer, Wyatt Summer Associate

In a decision last month, the U.S. Supreme Court held that transferees asserting Title VII claims did not have to show “significant harm” in order to prove that they suffered an adverse employment action, which is one component of the employee’s proof in a Title VII case. In order to establish a prima facie case, an employee claiming Title VII discrimination must prove that she was in a protected class, was qualified for the position, suffered an adverse employment action, and that similarly situated individuals outside of her protected class were treated more favorably. If she establishes the prima facie case, then the employer must demonstrate that it had a legitimate business reason for the adverse action. If the employer meets its burden, then the employee must prove that the legitimate business reason was a pretext for unlawful discrimination. Muldrow involves the adverse employment action part of the employee’s prima facie case. It is easy to recognize that a termination would be classified as an adverse employment action, but what about transfers?

Sergeant Muldrow, an officer in the St. Louis Police Department, worked as a plainclothes officer investigating public corruption and human trafficking in the Specialized Intelligence Division. Upon the replacement of the prior Division Commander, Muldrow was transferred out of the unit against her wishes and reassigned to a uniformed job by the new Division Commander who cited a desire for a male officer to fill the role. Although her rank and pay remained the same, she claimed a harm in the form of her responsibilities, perks, and schedule. Muldrow brought an action claiming that Title VII prevented the City from making such changes to her employment because of gender.

The District Court granted the City summary judgment based on Circuit precedent that required a transferee show a “significant change” in working conditions producing a “material employment disadvantage” in order to prove the adverse employment action part of her prima facie case. Given that her salary and rank stayed the same, the court explained, she did not meet this heightened standard. The Eighth Circuit ultimately affirmed, explaining how the transfer only affected a minor change in working conditions.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that the decisions below effectively worked a rewriting of Title VII, thus resolving conflicting circuit approaches. Emphasizing the plain language of the text, Justice Kagan found that the statute only necessitated that “some injury” in respect to employment terms or conditions be shown. The Court further differentiated between the anti-discrimination prong and the anti-retaliation prong of the statute, holding that the significant harm standard as provided by Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White should be confined to the context of anti-retaliation claims.

Moving forward, employers should be mindful of this lower threshold for transfer cases alleging discrimination. Of course, the plaintiffs still have to prove that the decision was based on a protected class, such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, that similarly situated employees outside of their protected class were treated more favorably, and they must overcome the employer’s burden to prove a legitimate business decision. Although Sergeant Muldrow was a transferee, the “some harm” standard could also have broader ramifications in Title VII employment cases, concerning employment actions such as negative evaluations, rejection of remote work, changes to schedule and flexibility, threats to fire or demote employees, or other employment decisions. It is also possible that this decision could broaden the class of Title VII plaintiffs asserting harm from DEI initiatives.  

The Court did note, however, that the lower courts’ decisions may have rested on issues of evidentiary proof. Thus, employees making Title VII claims will have to present evidence on how transfers actually effectuated some harm in order to prevail. Regardless, the lower bar for this factor of the prima facie case could usher in more Title VII claims. As always, in order to prevent discrimination, employers should make sure that their employment decisions are based on legitimate business reasons, that employees are treated consistently regardless of their protected class, and that there is documentation regarding employment issues. Employers with questions should consult their Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs labor and employment counsel.

Sharon L. Gold
Sharon Gold is a member of the Firm’s Litigation & Dispute Resolution Service Team. She concentrates her practice in the area of labor and employment and commercial litigation. Ms. Gold has experience defending employers in a variety of lawsuits, both at the administrative and civil complaint level, including defense of claims brought pursuant to the: FLSA, FMLA, Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, ERISA litigation, ADA, ADEA, Kentucky Civil Rights Act, Kentucky Wage and Hour Act,... Read More