How a U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Title VII Discrimination Claims

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in April 2024 that addresses an important question about what plaintiffs must prove in employment discrimination claims. Federal and New Jersey employment laws do not expressly state that a plaintiff alleging discrimination must prove that they suffered significant harm. Many courts, however, have interpreted antidiscrimination laws as requiring this kind of proof. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis overturned multiple lower court precedents applying this interpretation to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It held that a discriminatory job transfer is unlawful even without evidence of a “materially significant disadvantage.”

Section 703(a)(1) of Title VII deals with unlawful employment discrimination. It mentions acts like “fail[ing[ or refus[ing] to hire” a person and “limit[ing], segregat[ing], or classify[ing]” employees in discriminatory ways. It does not specifically state that a discriminatory employment action must cause harm to the person experiencing the discrimination. Before Muldrow, many courts had interpreted this provision as requiring proof of harm in at least some cases. This includes courts in New Jersey.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has held that Title VII discrimination claims involving “adverse employment actions” require proof of a “cognizable injury.” The injury must be serious enough to alter the “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” In the 1997 decision establishing this rule, the court held that “unnecessary derogatory comments” made toward the plaintiff did not rise to this level. Refusal to recommend the plaintiff for a promotion based on discriminatory grounds, however, would meet the standard. Muldrow may overturn the Third Circuit’s rule.

The plaintiff in Muldrow was a police officer in a large Midwestern city. She worked as a plainclothes officer in the department’s Intelligence Division from 2008 to 2017. This position gave her a regular work schedule and enabled her to become a Task Force Officer with the FBI. According to the Supreme Court’s opinion, the outgoing commander of the division told their successor that the plaintiff was a “workhorse” and the “one sergeant he could count on in the Division.”

The new commander sometimes referred to the plaintiff as “Mrs.” instead of “Sergeant” and almost immediately sought to transfer her to a different unit. He replaced her with a male officer, describing him as “a better fit for the Division’s ‘very dangerous’ work.” She ended up in a uniformed job with the same rank and pay, but without the perks of her previous position and with a different schedule and set of responsibilities. She sued the city for sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.

The trial and appellate courts held that the plaintiff had failed to meet her “adverse employment action” burden of proof. The transfer did not cause “a diminution to her title, salary, or benefits,” the appellate court held, but rather “only minor changes in working conditions.” The Supreme Court overturned this ruling. It held that, while a plaintiff must prove “some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment,” they do not have to show that the harm was “significant.” The court noted that while “‘discriminate against’ means treat worse,” Title VII does not “​​say[] anything about how much worse.”

The Resnick Law Group’s team of experienced and knowledgeable employment attorneys advocates for the rights of employees in New Jersey and New York who have experienced unlawful discrimination in the workplace. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can assist you please contact us today at 973-781-1204, at 646-867-7997, or online.

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