Supreme Court eases path for discrimination claims in job transfers

Sgt. Jatonya Clayborn-Muldrow

By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Newswire Senior
National Correspondent

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a female police sergeant from St. Louis, making it easier for workers to pursue employment discrimination claims related to job transfers.

The court sided with Sgt. Jatonya Clayborn-Muldrow, who alleged she was reassigned to a less prestigious role within the St. Louis Police Department because of her gender.

Clayborn-Muldrow, a Black woman, sued the department under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act after being transferred from the intelligence division in 2017. In her previous role, she had been deputized as an FBI agent, worked a steady weekday schedule, and was involved in investigating public corruption and human trafficking cases. 

However, her new assignment lacked the same prestige and benefits. Despite maintaining her pay, Clayborn-Muldrow lost her FBI privileges, had to work patrol, and was assigned weekend shifts. A male sergeant who had previously worked with Clayborn-Muldrow’s male supervisor took over for her.

The central issue before the justices was whether Title VII protects against all discriminatory job transfers or requires employees to demonstrate that the involuntary move resulted in a ‘significant disadvantage,’ such as harm to career prospects or changes in salary or rank.

In a crucial clarification, Justice Elena Kagan, in her opinion for the court, pointed out that some lower courts had used the incorrect higher standard.

She stated that while an employee must demonstrate some harm from a forced transfer to succeed, they need not meet a ‘significance test.’

Kagan emphasized that Clayborn-Muldrow’s allegations met the court’s new standard “with room to spare” despite her rank and pay remaining unchanged, and her ability to advance to other positions. Legal experts said the decision could lower the bar for employees to proceed with discrimination claims in court, potentially allowing lawsuits that failed under the previous standard to succeed.

Although the court’s judgment was unanimous, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Brett M. Kavanaugh each wrote separately to explain their differing views on the decision’s impact.

Justice Alito doubted that the decision would make a meaningful difference, suggesting that lower court judges should continue their current practices. Justice Kavanaugh indicated that he would not require any separate showing of harm, stating that “the discrimination is harm” under federal law. Thomas also asserted there was “little practical difference” between the court’s new test and the current practice of appeals court judges.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Clayborn-Muldrow not only clarifies that Title VII does not require courts to differentiate between job transfers causing significant disadvantages and those causing lesser harm but also significantly strengthens protections against employment discrimination based on sex and other protected characteristics.

Experts further opined that the landmark decision makes it easier for workers like Muldrow to pursue legal remedies for discriminatory job transfers, thereby profoundly impacting workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

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