What is the Title VII New Harm Standard?

As any good employer knows, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and other protected classes. When an individual brings a claim alleging violation of Title VII, there is a standard of proof that the plaintiff must meet.

However, a recent Supreme Court decision has now changed this standard of proof by lowering it, essentially making it easier for employees to meet their standard of proof burden when making claims that an adverse employment action brought harm to the employee.

Why was this Change Made?

This new change was brought on by a recent court case where a female police officer was able to win her discrimination case when she was involuntary transferred to another department. This article explores the new “harm standard” established in the case of Muldrow v. City of St. Louis and its implications for employers.

Muldrow v. City of St. Louis Case Breakdown

The Supreme Court case, Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, No. 22-193, 2024 WL 1642826 (U.S. April 17, 2024), was brought by a woman police officer wherein she claimed that her involuntary transfer was due to sex discrimination and therefore was a violation of Title VII. For the nine years prior to the transfer taking place, the plaintiff held the position of plainclothes officer in the Intelligence Division. The employer then transferred the woman officer and filled her role with a male police officer who the employer deemed to be a better fit for the dangerous work of the Intelligence Division.

Plaintiff did maintain her rank and salary; however, the plaintiff argued that conditions of her involuntary transfer was analogous to a demotion because it limited her opportunities to work on things like important investigations and limited her ability to interact with commanding officers. The Plaintiff further argued that in her prior role she was able to work a set 9 to 5 shift; whereas, in the new role, she was required to work a rotating schedule and she was no longer allowed to use an unmarked vehicle that she could take home.

When plaintiff’s case was heard by the lower court, the lower court granted summary judgment for the employer ruling that the plaintiff could not meet her burden of proof, as set by prior legal standards, because she retained her same pay and title when she was involuntarily transferred. The lower court ruled that the plaintiff was required to show that she experienced a materially significant disadvantage due to the involuntary transfer and in this case the plaintiff did not.

Once the case made it to the Supreme Court, the decision of the lower court was vacated. The Supreme Court held that in a Title VII case, the plaintiff is not required to show harm that is significant or material. The plaintiff only has to show that the action taken left them worse off with respect to the terms and conditions of their employment. Some injury is the only thing that needs to be shown by plaintiff in their discrimination claims.

How this New Harm Standard Benefits Employees

The Supreme Court’s ruling establishes a new, lower standard for employees to prove harm in Title VII disparate treatment claims. Employees no longer need to demonstrate a “material” disadvantage. Instead, they simply need to show the employer’s action made them “worse off” regarding their employment terms and conditions.

This means even seemingly minor changes, like a less desirable work schedule or loss of access to company equipment, could be used to support a discrimination claim.

What are the Implications of this Ruling for Employers?

The case highlights some issues that employers should be aware of and avoid.

First, the argument that another employee was a better fit is typically a losing one. The use of better fit language is typically interpreted as some kind of discrimination. When it comes to discrimination claims the term fit usually means that an employer has identified desired characteristics for an individual in a particular position or role and if an individual does not meet these characteristics, they will not be given the role.

Most of the time, a fit characteristic can be interpreted to be a certain sex/gender, race/ethnicity, or other characteristic protected under Title VII and will be used to provide the basis for a discrimination claim. If an employee is going to be the subject of an adverse action, the basis or reasoning for that action should never be something like they are not a good fit or they do not fit in with our culture.

Further, if an employer is going to make an involuntary change to an employee’s role, position, or any other term or condition of employment, the employer must be prepared to defend their decision. An employer needs to be able to explain why those changes were made and must be aware of the true impact that those changes may have. Any explanation needs to be supported by objective reasons which are supported by facts.

As has been learned with this recent Supreme Court case, an employer cannot solely focus on wages or titles to determine if an employee will be harmed by an involuntary change to the terms and conditions of their employment. An employer needs to look at all terms and conditions of employment that exist including things such as schedules, colleagues, location, company equipment, etc. This must be considered even in the case of a job transfer.

Avoiding Legal Trouble: Best Practices for Employers

Here’s how employers can navigate the new Title VII harm standard:

  • Avoid “Better Fit” Language: Explaining an involuntary transfer as someone being a “better fit” for another role can raise red flags for discrimination based on protected characteristics.
  • Focus on Objective Reasons: When making employment decisions, rely on objective criteria demonstrably linked to job performance.
  • Be Prepared to Defend Your Decisions: Document the rationale behind any involuntary transfers and be prepared to justify the impact on the employee’s work experience.

Conclusion: Understanding the New Landscape

The Muldrow decision highlights the importance of careful consideration when making employment decisions, especially those involving involuntary transfers. By understanding the new harm standard and implementing best practices, employers can minimize the risk of discrimination lawsuits.