Muldrow ruling | Supreme Court lowers bar for workplace discrimination suits in "victory for workers"

Supreme Court lowers bar for workplace discrimination suits in

The Supreme Court made a ruling on Wednesday that will make it more difficult to transfer employees to different jobs against their will, in turn making it easier for workers to sue for discrimination.

In the Muldrow v. City of Saint Louis case, the court found the city was guilty of discriminating against the plaintiff under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on protected characteristics such as sex, race, and religion and is designed to prevent discrimination in the workplace.

Jatonya Muldrow, former Sargeant at the St. Louis Police Department, sued after being transferred from its intelligence division to a new department, which she argued was less prestigious and had a less stable work schedule, and was so she could be replaced by a male.

Whilst her pay remained the same in the new role, Muldrow had her FBI privileges revoked, access to fewer perks including a vehicle, and weekend shifts added to her work schedule.

“While Muldrow’s rank and pay remained the same in the new position, her responsibilities, perks, and schedule did not,” Justice Elena Kagan writes on behalf of the court.

Meanwhile, a male sergeant who was a former colleague of her supervisor was hired into her old role.

However, per reporting from the New York Times, her claims of discrimination were rejected by lower courts that found she hadn’t sufficiently proved an employment disadvantage given her consistent pay.

The Supreme Court justices had to rule on whether all discriminatory role transfers violate the Act, or if there must be proof any transfer resulted in a “significant disadvantage,” whatever form this took.

Kagan and her fellow justices found that the lower courts were wrong in their verdict. “Although an employee must show some harm from a forced transfer to prevail, she need not show that the injury satisfies a significance test,” she asserts in the ruling.

“The transfer must have left her worse off, but need not have left her significantly so. And Muldrow’s allegations, if properly preserved and supported, meet that test with room to spare.”

From discrimination to DE&I: What does the ruling mean for HR?

The ruling proposes to lower the bar for employees to file lawsuits based on discrimination. Employees who argue they have been discriminated against through forced job transfers will no longer have to prove they were “significantly” disadvantaged.

In theory, this gives employees a greater foothold to refuse transfers they believe to be discriminatory.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Muldrow is an important victory for workers across the nation, ensuring that Title VII’s protections against racial discrimination are fairly applied,” said a statement from the Legal Defense Fund (LDF).

Beyond cases such as Muldrow’s, some have raised concerns that the ruling would make it easier for reverse discrimination claims from anti-DE&I groups to be upheld, with the LDF describing it as an “opening” for such bodies in a statement to Bloomberg.

However, many others argue that there is no such risk.

“By expanding the range of employment decisions that meet the threshold for unlawful discrimination, does the decision spell doom for employer diversity programs? This fearmongering is misguided and unjustified,” states Ming-Qi Chu, Deputy Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Contrary to what some have claimed, this decision does not directly implicate programs that create diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA),” Chu adds. “Unlike the discriminatory transfer at issue in Muldrow, DEIA programs generally do not rely on race to determine the terms and conditions of employment.”

Amalea Smirniotopoulos, Senior Policy Counsel and Co-Manager of the Equal Protection Initiative, LDF, echoes that whilst some critics may use the ruling in anti-DE&I attempts, employers should stand by their DE&I programs which serve to prevent workplace discrimination.

“Programs that create diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility are fundamental to fulfilling employers’ Title VII obligations to create workplaces that are free from discrimination and in which everyone feels included and valued,” she said.

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