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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
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St. Louis police officer wins Supreme Court fight to bring sex discrimination suit 

The high court declined to implement additional requirements for sex discrimination claims on job transfers.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a St. Louis police officer can bring a sex discrimination lawsuit over her department's decision to remove her from an intelligence division job she held for almost a decade.

Lower courts incorrectly altered Title VII to make it more difficult to bring sex discrimination suits, the high court determined.

Justice Elena Kagan said the court’s ruling corrects that error. 

“To make out a Title VII discrimination claim, a transferee must show some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment,” Kagan, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in the majority opinion. “What the transferee does not have to show, according to the relevant text, is that the harm incurred was ‘significant.’” 

Requiring these claims to be significant, Kagan said, would not only add words to the statute, but also impose new requirements that are not specified in the law.

“And that difference can make a real difference for complaining transferees,” Kagan wrote. “Many forced transfers leave workers worse off respecting employment terms or conditions. (After all, a transfer is not usually forced when it leaves the employee better off.)” 

The plaintiff, Sgt. Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow, investigated public corruption, human trafficking and gun and gang violence with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s intelligence division.

Her time in the division ended when Capt. Michael Deeba was hired as the commander of intelligence in 2017.

Deeba wanted to shift the unit’s focus to violent crime — work he classified as “very dangerous.” 

As Deeba reorganized the unit, Muldrow was removed suddenly from the division. The job transfer left her with a new work schedule and responsibilities. 

Muldrow claims Deeba transferred her because of her sex. She cited prior instances of discriminatory behavior, like Deeba refusing to address her by her rank, and sued the city of St. Louis for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees because of their sex. 

A federal judge shot down Muldrow’s suit and ruled for the city on summary judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. 

The Supreme Court heard Muldrow’s case in December to decide if the transfer itself could be considered discriminatory or if Muldrow had to prove she suffered negative consequences as a result.

Although the bench was unanimous in its decision to allow Muldrow’s case to proceed, several justices disagreed with the majority opinion’s framing of the case. 

Justice Clarence Thomas, a George H.W. Bush appointee, said the majority mischaracterized the Eighth Circuit’s ruling. The appeals court did not impose a heightened harm requirement, he said; rather, it required plaintiffs to show an actual disadvantage that was more than a “trifling harm.”

Rebuffing the majority's stance that the Eighth Circuit should have put more weight in Muldrow’s claims, Thomas said the plaintiff had failed to show any real disadvantage caused by the transfer.

“Muldrow failed to prove that there was any nontrifling change in her job’s prestige — which was her lone theory of harm,” Thomas wrote. 

Thomas agreed, however, that the case should be remanded to determine if the appeals court ruling was consistent “with a more-than-trifling-harm requirement.” 

Justice Samuel Alito also declined to join what he described as the court’s “unhelpful opinion.”

The court laid out a standard requiring the show of harm that isn’t substantial, Alito said, but he wasn’t sure what that would mean in practice. He said harm must be defined by at least some measure of impact.

“I see little if any substantive difference between the terminology the court approves and the terminology it doesn’t like,” the George W. Bush appointee wrote. “The predictable result of today’s decision is that careful lower court judges will mind the words they use but will continue to do pretty much just what they have done for years.” 

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Donald Trump appointee, also disagreed with the court’s “some harm” standard. He said the standard was novel, not having been applied by a lower court or advocated for by any party before the court. 

Title VII does not require a separate showing of harm, Kavanaugh wrote, pointing to the text of the statute. 

“The discrimination is harm,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The only question then is whether the relevant employment action changes the compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. A transfer does so.” 

Still, Kavanaugh said the majority's opinion likely would yield the same result as it would have using his preferred standard. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Employment

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