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Supreme Court Holds That Title VII Does Not Require a Showing of Material or Significant Injury for Claims Based on Allegedly Discriminatory Transfers

April 24, 2024 Download PDF

On April 17, 2024, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not require employees to suffer a “‘significant’ employment disadvantage” in order to state a viable discrimination claim.[1]  Rather, to prevail under Title VII, an employee must demonstrate “some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment.”[2]  This decision resolves a circuit split[3] on the standard for Title VII claims and potentially allows for more workplace discrimination lawsuits to proceed to trial.


In Muldrow v. City of St. Louis[4] a police officer sued the St. Louis Police Department for gender-based discrimination under Title VII.  She alleged that her transfer to a different position resulted in diminished prestige and benefits.  Although Muldrow retained her rank and salary, her new role involved more administrative duties.  She also was excluded from working on priority cases with high-ranking officials, lost access to her take-home vehicle, was assigned to inconsistent schedules that included weekends, and was stripped of special FBI privileges that previously allowed her to earn up to $17,500 in overtime annually.[5]

When Muldrow filed her lawsuit, federal courts were divided on the standard for a viable Title VII claim challenging an allegedly discriminatory transfer.[6]  The statute forbids employees from “discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to his [or her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” based on certain protected categories.[7]  Some courts, such as the First, Second, and Seventh Circuits, had interpreted this language to require the alleged discrimination to have caused a “materially significant disadvantage”; while others, such as the Fifth and D.C. Circuits, did not.[8]

Siding with the former, the district court and the Eighth Circuit dismissed Muldrow’s claim, finding that she had failed to show that her transfer resulted in a “materially significant disadvantage.”[9]  While the transfer changed some of her job responsibilities, there was no “diminution to her title, salary, or benefits.”  Thus, the Eighth Circuit reasoned, plaintiff’s injuries were “insufficient” to establish a viable Title VII claim.[10]

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed.  In the lead opinion written by Justice Kagan and joined by five other Justices, the Court explained that Title VII claimants need not demonstrate a “significant” “serious,” or “substantial” injury.[11]  “[T]he text of Title VII,” the Court reasoned, “imposes no such requirement.”[12]  Yet the Court did not eliminate the injury-requirement altogether, reasoning that a Title VII claimant must show “some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment.”[13]

Justices Thomas, Alito, and Kavanaugh each filed separate opinions concurring in the judgment.  While Justice Thomas did not believe that the Eighth Circuit actually imposed a heightened burden on the plaintiff, he agreed to the vacatur and remand, acknowledging that the use of terms like “material” or “significant” raised the possibility that the lower court had applied a stricter standard.[14]  Justice Alito, on the other hand, agreed in the outcome but declined to “join the Court’s unhelpful opinion,” reasoning that the standard set forth by the majority would be too difficult for lower courts to apply.[15]  Justice Kavanaugh explained that he would have interpreted Title VII to eliminate the need to show any harm separate from the fact of the transfer, because a transfer based on a discriminatory motive would itself violate Title VII.[16]


Muldrow clarifies the standard for Title VII claims, resolving a circuit split and lowering the plaintiff’s burden of pleading and proving an employment discrimination claim based on an allegedly discriminatory transfer in the circuits that previously required a showing of materiality or substantiality.  However, because the case was decided in the specific context of Title VII job transfer claims, and because the majority does not define the term “some harm,” lower courts will likely play an instrumental role in interpreting and applying the standard established in the Muldrow decision in other contexts.  Meanwhile, all parties involved in employment litigation should monitor how these cases are decided to understand and adapt to the changing legal landscape. 

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[1]        Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, 2024 WL 1642826, at *7 (U.S. Apr. 17, 2024).

[2]        Id. at *1.

[3]        Compare, e.g., Caraballo-Caraballo v. Corr. Admin., 892 F.3d 53, 61 (1st Cir. 2018) (requiring the transfer to “materially change[]” the plaintiff’s conditions of employment); Williams v. R. H. Donnelley, Corp., 368 F.3d 123, 128 (2d Cir. 2004) (requiring the transfer to cause a “materially significant disadvantage” in plaintiff’s terms of employment); James v. Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Inc., 368 F.3d 371, 376 (4th Cir. 2004) (requiring the transfer to cause a “significant detrimental effect” in plaintiff’s conditions of employment); O’Neal v. Chicago, 392 F.3d 909, 911 (7th Cir. 2004) (requiring the transfer to cause a “materially adverse” impact to plaintiff’s conditions of employment); Sanchez v. Denver Pub. Schs., 164 F.3d 527, 532 (10th Cir. 1998) (requiring the transfer to cause a “significant change” to plaintiff’s conditions of employment); and Webb-Edwards v. Orange Cnty. Sheriff’s Office, 525 F.3d 1013, 1033 (11th Cir. 2008) (requiring the transfer to cause a “serious and material change” to plaintiff’s conditions of employment), with Chambers v. District of Columbia, 35 F.4th 870, 872, 876–877 (D.C. Cir. 2022) (en banc) (overruling precedent that demanded an “objectively tangible harm” and rejecting a “material adversity” requirement); Hamilton v. Dallas Cnty., 79 F.4th 494, 497 (5th Cir. 2023) (overruling precedent that “actionable adverse employment actions” require an “ultimate employment decision[].”).

[4]        Muldrow, 2024 WL 1642826, at *1.

[5]        Id. at *3.

[6]        See supra, n. 3.

[7]        42 U.S.C. §2000e-2.

[8]        See supra, n. 3.

[9]        See Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, 30 F.4th 680, 692 (8th Cir. 2022); Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, 2020 WL 5505113, at *12 (E.D. Mo. Sept. 11, 2020).

[10]       Id. at 689.

[11]       Muldrow, 2024 WL 1642826, at *4.

[12]       Id.

[13]       Id. at *5.

[14]       Id. at *7, 9 (Thomas, J. concurring).

[15]       Id. at *8 (Alito, J. concurring).

[16]       Id.

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