Title VII Doesn’t Require ‘Significance Test,’ Supreme Court Rules

Employment Law

A Title VII plaintiff does not need to demonstrate that the injury alleged satisfies a significance test, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

From 2008 through 2017, Sergeant Jatonya Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the St. Louis Police Department’s specialized Intelligence Division. During her time, she investigated public corruption and human trafficking cases, oversaw the Gang Unit and served as head of the Gun Crimes Unit.

In addition, because of her Division position, Muldrow was also deputized as a Task Force Officer with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a status that granted her FBI credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle and the authority to pursue investigations outside of St. Louis.

When a new commander was appointed to the Intelligence Division in 2017, Muldrow’s outgoing boss described her as a “workhorse” and the “one sergeant he could count on” in the Division.

The new commander instead asked the Department to transfer Muldrow, whom he sometimes called “Mrs.” rather than “Sergeant”—and replace her with a male officer, who he said was a better fit for the “very dangerous” work.

Against Muldrow’s wishes, she was transferred and reassigned to a uniform job. Her rank and pay remained the same, but her responsibilities, perks and schedule did not. Instead of working with high-ranking officials, she now supervised the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers.

Muldrow lost her FBI status and the car that came with it, and was placed on a rotating schedule that often involved weekend shifts.

She filed suit under Title VII, alleging discrimination based on sex. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, holding that Muldrow failed to show that her transfer effected a “significant” change because she experienced no impact in salary or rank. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court granted cert to resolve a circuit split over whether an employee challenging a transfer under Title VII must meet a heightened threshold of harm, whether dubbed significant, serious or something similar.

Title VII imposes no such requirement, Justice Elena Kagan wrote.

“To make out a Title VII discrimination claim, a transferee must show some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment,” she said. “What the transferee does not have to show, according to the relevant text, is that the harm incurred was ‘significant.’ Or serious, or substantial, or any other similar adjective suggesting that the disadvantage to the employee must exceed a heightened bar. ‘Discriminate against’ means treat worse, here based on sex. But neither that phrase nor any other says anything about how much worse.”

To demand “significance” is to add words to the statute Congress enacted, the justices said, and impose a new requirement on a Title VII claimant, so that the law as applied demands something more than the law as written.

Justice Kagan provided examples of prior plaintiffs who saw their cases dismissed because they lacked “significance,” from an engineering technician assigned to work at a new job site (a 14- by 22-foot wind tunnel) to a shipping worker required to take a position involving only night work.

“All those employees suffered some injury in employment terms or conditions (allegedly because of race or sex),” she wrote. “Their claims were rejected solely because courts rewrote Title VII, compelling workers to make a showing that the statutory text does not require.”

The city’s policy argument failed to sway the Court, which found little reason to expect the floodgates to open because employees must show some injury to satisfy the statutory requirements.

“But even supposing the City’s worst predictions come true, that would be the result of the statute Congress drafted,” Justice Kagan wrote. “Had Congress wanted to limit liability for job transfers to those causing a significant disadvantage, it could have done so. By contrast, this Court does not get to make that judgment.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito and Brett M. Kavanaugh all filed separate opinions, concurring in the judgment.

To read the opinion in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, click here.

Why it matters

For employees in those circuits that previously imposed a “significance” requirement (or similar term) in order to move forward with a Title VII claim after a transfer, the decision lightens the load.



pursuant to New York DR 2-101(f)

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