New Muldrow decision makes it clear that proving illegal discrimination does not require showing financial harm.

Austin Campbell

Dallas Employment Trial Lawyer Austin Campbell

Summary: This article discusses the holding and implications of the Supreme Court decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis.

In the U.S. Supreme Court’s April 17, 2024, decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, the Court reversed a lower court decision dismissing a police officer’s lawsuit over being transferred to a worse position because of sex.  This reinstated her case.  In concert with the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Hamilton v. Dallas County, 79 F.4th 494 (5th Cir. 2023), Muldrow hopefully represents a coming trend of courts finally rolling back decades of judge-made roadblocks to employees’ abilities to enforce their civil rights.  Courts applying the law as written should give employees greater protections by removing opportunities for judges’ preconceptions or assumptions (often about people in very different circumstances from themselves) to get mixed into their rulings.

In Muldrow, the lower appellate court (the Eighth Circuit) decided that because Ms. Muldrow’s transfer did not change her rank or pay, she could not prove discrimination even if she really was transferred because of her sex.  Although there was evidence the new position Ms. Muldrow was moved to was less prestigious within the department, had fewer responsibilities and perks, came with a worse schedule, and required her to give up her work vehicle, the Eighth Circuit reached that decision because it did not think those changes were “significant” enough to constitute discrimination.

In deciding this case, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination, was not limited to just prohibiting discrimination that was “significant” enough.  Rather, that was an adjective that judges effectively added to the text of law after the fact.

“Discriminate against” means treat worse, here based on sex. . . . But neither that phrase nor any other says anything about how much worse. There is nothing in the provision to distinguish, as the courts below did, between transfers causing significant disadvantages and transfers causing not-so-significant ones. And there is nothing to otherwise establish an elevated threshold of harm. To demand “significance” is to add words—and significant words, as it were—to the statute Congress enacted. It is to impose a new requirement on a Title VII claimant, so that the law as applied demands something more of her than the law as written.

Instead, the Supreme Court held that any worse treatment due to sex is sex discrimination.  What is required is simply a disadvantageous change in the “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” as Title VII states in black and white.

And in this case, the transfer “chang[ed] nothing less than the what, where, and when of [Ms. Muldrow’s] police work.”  Because Ms. Muldrow could show “some” harm due to the transfer, she was allowed to keep going with her case.  The Court went on to point out that requiring “significance” on top of what the law actually requires made it so that whether an action could even be discrimination depended largely on “the eye of the beholder” rather than Title VII.  That can make proving discrimination far harder.

This decision in Muldrow should help bring the focus of proving discrimination back to actually proving discrimination—was Ms. Muldrow transferred because of sex or not?—instead of arcane factors like whether a judge thinks harm was bad enough to even let a jury at the case.  Ms. Muldrow can then win or lose based on the evidence.   

The Fifth Circuit’s Hamilton decision was similarly straightforward.  There, the court also just applied Title VII as written.  It decided that there was no basis in that law for its quarter-century of requiring an employee to also prove they suffered an “ultimate employment action” in any ordinary discrimination case.  Like in Muldrow, the Fifth Circuit determined it must apply the law as written instead of adding language that was never there in the first place.

These high-profile decisions may represent a trend of simplifying civil rights law to ultimately let it get back to its purpose, instead of adding things to limit litigation and protect employers.  This gives employees more opportunities to protect themselves.  Both of these cases represent a “textualist” approach, i.e., the law means what the text of the law says, nothing more or less.  This approach has its own flaws, of course, but at the very least it means that there is somewhat less room for a judge’s subjective evaluations of case.  This should result in more cases being tried before juries.  And Ms. Muldrow and others will have to convince a jury—who after all are supposed to be the finders of fact in the American judicial system—whether they were discriminated against.  This also helps move civil rights law closer to what Congress intended, preserving the proper roles of the courts and legislature.     

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you by making the terms or conditions of your work worse for an illegal reason, you should talk to an employment attorney like those at Rob Wiley, P.C.   

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