Based on a recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, discrimination claims under Title VII just became easier for employees to prove. Here is a link to the Court’s decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees with respect to any terms and conditions of employment based on race, sex, disabilities, and other protected categories. In Muldrow, a police sergeant sued the City for sex discrimination after she was transferred from a plainclothes position in the specialized Intelligence Division to a uniformed position elsewhere and replaced by a male co-worker. Although the plaintiff’s rank and pay did not change after the transfer, she alleged that her job duties, perks, stature, and schedule were not as favorable in the new position.

The trial court dismissed Muldrow’s lawsuit on summary judgment on the grounds that her transfer did not result in a “materially significant disadvantage”. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. The Court of Appeals agreed the transfer was not actionable even if it was based on the plaintiff’s gender because it “did not result in a diminution to her title, salary or benefits” and had only caused “minor changes in working conditions.”

On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, SCOTUS clarified that an employee suing for a discriminatory transfer must prove that the transfer resulted in some harm to a term or condition of employment but that the harm does not have to be “significant” to be actionable. Rather, the transfer could violate Title VII if it resulted in some “disadvantageous” change to the employee’s terms and conditions of employment.

The Court refused to adopt the standard applicable to retaliation claims to discrimination claims. For a retaliation claim to be actionable, the plaintiff must prove the retaliatory action caused a “significant” harm. The Court explained the higher standard of proof for retaliation claims is appropriate because the employer’s actions must be severe enough to “dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” The same rationale does not apply to discrimination claims because Title VII prohibits any discriminatory actions without distinguishing between “significant” and less significant harms. The plaintiff’s allegations about the effects of her transfer were found by the Court to be sufficient for a discrimination claim “with room to spare.”

Although the Muldrow decision involved claims for discriminatory transfers under Title VII, its rationale should apply to other employment actions that affect an employee’s terms and conditions of employment.

The decision is also consistent with cases decided under the California state discrimination laws. Like Title VII, the FEHA prohibits discrimination that results in an “adverse employment action.” The California Supreme Court has similarly held that “[m]inor or relatively trivial adverse actions or conduct by employers or fellow employees that, from an objective perspective, are reasonably likely to do no more than anger or upset an employee cannot properly be viewed as materially affecting the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment and are not actionable, but adverse treatment that is reasonably likely to impair a reasonable employee’s job performance or prospects for advancement or promotion falls within the reach of the antidiscrimination provisions”. (Yanowitz v. L’Oreal USA, Inc. (2005) 36 Cal.4th 1028)

The lower bar for plaintiffs to establish discrimination claims will increase the risk for employers that the claims will survive summary judgment and proceed to trial. That additional risk and uncertainty will also likely result in a greater willingness to consider early mediation and settlement.

Jeff Fuchsman