On April 17, 2024, the United States Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis (No. 22-193) and held that “some injury” is sufficient to establish a federal discrimination or retaliation claim based on a job transfer.

Discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 require an adverse employment action to state a claim. Prior to Muldrow, most federal Circuit Court precedent required an employee to show a “materially significant disadvantage” to make a Title VII claim based on a job transfer.  This standard required an employee to show that the transfer caused them to lose supervisory authority or pay.

The plaintiff in Muldrow was a sergeant in the St. Louis Police Department. The Police Department transferred Sergeant Muldrow to another unit and replaced her with a male sergeant. Although Sergeant Muldrow’s lateral transfer resulted in the same title and pay, she nonetheless argued that she had suffered an adverse employment action because the Department had allegedly based its decision on Sergeant Muldrow’s sex.

The District Court dismissed Sergeant Muldrow’s complaint. The Eighth Circuit affirmed on the basis that—according to her own deposition testimony—Sergeant Muldrow did not suffer a “materially significant disadvantage” to the terms and conditions of her employment.

A unanimous Supreme Court reversed and held that, while an employee must still point to a material change in the terms and conditions of her employment, the “harm need not be significant.”[1] The Court pointed to prior case law, such as Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, for the proposition that an employee only needs to show “some injury” resulting from treatment based on their sex or other protected characteristic.

Notably, the Muldrow decision likely abrogates Fourth Circuit case law for discriminatory adverse employment actions, as that case law closely tracked the Eighth Circuit’s “materially significant disadvantage” standard.

After Muldrow, employers should be more cautious in acceding to a supervisor’s personnel requests. A court will still not act as a “super personnel department” but will more closely scrutinize company personnel reorganizations. A prudent employer will document the qualifications of employees in their roles and should make decisions based on those qualification. More significantly, employers should not transfer employees as a remedy for alleged discrimination or retaliation. Any actions to remedy discrimination or retaliation should be taken against the supervisor accused of discrimination or retaliation.

While the Muldrow decision only looked at Title VII, lateral transfers under the Americans with Disabilities Act will likely be equally scrutinized. The ADA and Title VII share the same enforcement mechanism. Case law for both laws are closely related. An employer should consult with legal counsel before transferring an employee as a reasonable accommodation.

The Court has greatly expanded the universe of actionable adverse employment actions. This continues the Court’s trend of decisions designed to eradicate employment decisionmaking based on “suspect” classifications.

[1] The Court’s opinion represented the views of six Justices.  Justices Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh concurred only in the judgment.