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Supreme Court Lowers Harm Necessary for Employee to Sustain Discrimination Claim

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The U.S. Supreme Court has made it easier for employees to show some harm that is based on discrimination to constitute a legal claim.  Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, No. 22-193 (4/17/24).  The case involved a lawsuit by a female police sergeant who claimed she was unlawfully transferred from the intelligence division to a less prestigious patrol position because she is a woman.  The lower federal courts had dismissed the claim on the basis that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires a plaintiff to show she suffered significant harm from the discriminatory act to bring a legal claim.  

Reversing the lower federal courts, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the claim was established.  The Justices ruled that workers can sue employers over a biased transfer decision as long as they can show they suffered some harm related to a job condition, even though the harm need not be significant.  Although the Justices focused on job transfers, it is likely that courts will apply the same logic to other employer actions. The Court references employer actions that cause "some harm" that leave the worker "worse off."  

Some commentators argue that the following employer actions, previously considered too insignificant to warrant a legal claim, are subject to attack under the Muldrow case concepts:  Putting an employer on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan); removing supervisory duties; imposing harsh schedule changes; downgrading job duties or work conditions; or withdrawing perks.  

The Court emphasizes that a plaintiff must still show that the employer's actions were taken for a discriminatory reason, and the Court distinguished cases involving employee retaliation, suggesting that significant harm may still be required for a plaintiff to state a retaliation claim. 

This article is part of our June 2024 Newsletter. 

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