Plaintiffs in Discrimination Cases Need Only Show “Some Harm” Rather Than “Significant Harm” to Seek Relief Says Supreme Court

Mathew Moldawer
Mathew Moldawer

One of the biggest challenges employers face is whether a job transfer without a change in salary or position title can be the basis of a claim for discrimination.  Courts provided inconsistent rulings, often finding that if salary and position title remain the same, an employee who claims that a transfer is discriminatory must prove that the transfer resulted in “significant harm” to be actionable.

Recently, the Supreme Court weighed in, ruling that plaintiffs need only show “some harm,” a lower standard than “significant harm,” to seek a remedy for alleged discrimination. Muldrow v. City of St. Louis.

Muldrow was a female police officer in the City’s Specialized Intelligence Division as a plain-clothes police officer.  Muldrow investigated public corruption and human trafficking cases and served as the head of the Gun Crimes Unit. Muldrow was deputized as a Task Force Officer and worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), through which she received FBI credentials, a take home vehicle, and authority to pursue investigations outside of St. Louis. The position was prestigious.

In 2017, Muldrow was transferred to a role supervising neighborhood patrol officers. Her pay and rank remained the same.  Still, Muldrow and others viewed the move as a demotion.

Muldrow sued, alleging she was transferred because of her sex. Lower federal courts found that the demotion was not actionable because it only caused “some harm,” given that her pay and job position stayed the same. The Supreme Court decided to review the case.

The Supreme Court held that a plaintiff need only “show that the transfer brought about some ‘disadvantageous’ change in an employment term or condition” to pursue a claim for discrimination.  This represents a departure from earlier Supreme Court cases that required a showing of significant harm for plaintiff to move a case forward.

 The Supreme Court was unconcerned that the claim from the City of St. Louis might open the courts to more discrimination claims.

Significantly, this case exposes employers to more protracted litigation, was unanimous; Justices Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh, among the most conservative, only filed concurrences.

More litigation will follow.

Sound advice from legal counsel could help to alleviate risk when making employment changes.    

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