Supreme Court Makes It Easier to Sue for Job Discrimination

The US Supreme Court made it easier for employees to sue over discriminatory job transfers, siding with a St. Louis police officer who says she was shifted to a different role against her will because she is female.

The justices unanimously ruled Wednesday that people suing under the main federal job-bias law don’t have to show a transfer caused them a significant disadvantage. Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said Congress required only that employees show some sort of harm, even if it’s not a major one.

“To demand ‘significance’ is to add words — and significant words, as it were — to the statute Congress enacted,” Kagan wrote.

Federal appeals courts had been divided on the issue, with some requiring workers to show a job transfer had a significant impact beyond the discrimination itself.

The officer, Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow, was a sergeant who worked in the St. Louis Police Department’s intelligence division on public-corruption and human-trafficking cases from 2008 to 2017. She said she was transferred without warning out of the intelligence division and replaced with a man.

Muldrow’s pay remained the same in her new position in the department’s Fifth District. But she says she had to start working weekends, was given more routine assignments like patrolling and lost much of her access to high-profile people within and outside the department.

Alito and Kavanaugh

A federal appeals court threw out her lawsuit against the city, saying she hadn’t shown enough of an adverse impact on her job conditions.

Kagan said Muldrow’s allegations met the law’s injury requirements “with room to spare,” kicking the case back to the lower courts to consider other issues.

Although the outcome was unanimous, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh declined to join Kagan’s reasoning.

Alito called the opinion “unhelpful,” saying he didn’t understand how plaintiffs could be required to show harm but not that the impact was significant.

“I have no idea what this means, and I can just imagine how this guidance will be greeted by lower court judges,” he wrote.

Kavanaugh said the court should have gone further and not required any showing of harm at all.

Kagan pointed to lawsuits by a person who had been forced to work in a wind tunnel, another worker who had been moved to a night shift and a third employee whose new job meant supervising fewer people. In each case, a federal appeals court said the harm wasn’t significant enough to allow a lawsuit.

Those examples “illustrate how claims that failed under a significance standard should now succeed,” Kagan wrote.

The Biden administration backed Muldrow in the case, while business groups backed the city.

The case is Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, 22-193.