Supreme Court Says Lateral Job Transfer Can Be Discriminatory Under Federal Law

Lateral Job Transfer Can Be Discriminatory Under Federal Law

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a decision holding that a lateral job transfer can be discriminatory under Title VII when the transfer brought some harm to the employee, rejecting some circuit courts’ precedents that the employee must show the lateral transfer caused “significant” harm (Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, No. 22-193 (April 17, 2024)).

From 2008 through 2017, Jatonya Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer with the St. Louis Police Department in the specialized Intelligence Division. She investigated public corruption and human trafficking cases, oversaw the Gang Unit and served as head of the Gun Crimes Unit. Her position warranted deputization as a Task Force Officer with the FBI, which granted her FBI credentials, an unmarked take-home vehicle and authority to pursue investigations outside of the city.

In 2017, the new Intelligence Division commander had Muldrow transferred out of the unit and replaced with a male police officer. Muldrow was reassigned to a uniformed job supervising the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers. Her rank and pay remained the same in her new position, but her responsibilities, perks and schedule did not. She no longer worked with high-ranking officials as in the past, had a less consistent schedule and lost both her FBI status and the car that came with it.

Muldrow brought a sex discrimination claim under Title VII, which makes it unlawful for an employer to “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge an individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, privileges of employment, because of such individual’s … sex.”

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the St. Louis Police Department, stating that Muldrow failed to show a “significant” change in working conditions producing a “material employment disadvantage” because she experienced no change in her salary, rank or benefits; she retained a supervisory role, like her last position; and she presented no evidence that the transfer harmed her future career prospects. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit agreed, stating the transfer brought “only minor changes in working conditions.”

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Eighth Circuit’s opinion, holding that an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII must show that the transfer brought about “some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment, but the harm need not be significant.” The Court’s ruling largely rested on Title VII’s language above, which the Court said does not require “significant” harm. To require significance adds words to Title VII and imposes a new requirement on claimants that goes beyond what the law requires.

After this decision, employers should give more consideration to lateral transfers to ensure their policies and practices align with the law. Specifically, employers must go beyond ensuring that someone’s salary, benefits or rank remain the same when transferring positions and should determine whether other terms and conditions of employment will change, such as the employee’s schedule, perks, work location or anything else that could potentially be disadvantageous in the eyes of the transferred employee. If so, employers should consult with their legal counsel and carefully consider whether to go through with the transfer.

James W. Ward, Employment Law Subject Matter Expert/Legal Writer and Editor

CalChamber members can read more about Gender, Sex, and Gender Identity and Expression Discrimination in the HR Library. Not a member? Learn more about how HRCalifornia can help you.

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