California Employment Law Blog

United States Supreme Court: Subtle Job Changes Can Be Discriminatory Under Title VII

Posted by Timothy B. Del Castillo | May 13, 2024 | 0 Comments

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a critical federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. Established to ensure equal employment opportunities and fair treatment in the workplace, Title VII protects employees from mistreatment linked to their inherent personal traits. Although enacted over six decades ago, the interpretation of Title VII remains central to legal debates about the extent of employment discrimination.

A notable case is Muldrow v. City of St. Louis (2024), where the U.S. Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether a job transfer that does not affect an employee's salary, title, or benefits—but significantly changes her job responsibilities and conditions—constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII.

From 2008 to 2017, Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow worked in a plainclothes role within the Intelligence Division, handling high-profile cases and collaborating closely with top officials. In 2017, after a leadership change, her new commander requested her transfer to accommodate a male officer, which the department approved. Muldrow's new position involved routine supervisory duties over neighborhood patrol officers, representing a significant shift from her prior role, along with changes to her work perks and schedule.

Sergeant Muldrow filed a lawsuit under Title VII, claiming sex discrimination based on her transfer. Despite retaining the same rank and pay, she argued that the transfer substantially altered her job responsibilities, opportunities, and working conditions due to her sex.

Muldrow initially lost in the lower courts, which ruled that the transfer did not result in a "materially significant disadvantage" because it did not alter her title, salary, or benefits, thus failing to meet the threshold for discriminatory job reassignment under Title VII.

However, the Supreme Court adopted a different stance, stating that Title VII does not require plaintiffs to prove that a transfer involved significant harm. Instead, plaintiffs need only show that the transfer adversely affected their terms or conditions of employment. The Court highlighted that any discrimination that negatively impacts employment conditions should be actionable, regardless of the change's perceived significance.

With this latest decision by the Supreme Court, employers should note that even minor changes, such as in job duties or work schedules, can now lead to discrimination lawsuits if linked to an employee's protected characteristics, such as sex or race. Employees should understand their right to contest any discriminatory changes to their employment, even if these do not affect their pay or title. Moving forward, it is highly advisable for both employers and employees to seek legal counsel in the face of any potential Title VII violations. 

About the Author

Timothy B. Del Castillo

Tim Del Castillo is Founding Partner of Castle Law: California Employment Counsel, PC.


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