Thursday, April 18, 2024

Supreme Court eases path for employees to sue employers for discriminatory job transfers

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that an employee alleging a discriminatory job transfer need not show the suffering of a "materially significant" disadvantage. Instead, the employee need only show "some injury respecting her employment terms or conditions."

The case involved a police sergeant forced to transfer out of her position in the department's intelligence division. The employer claimed that she could not establish a Title VII volitation because the transfer did not result in a diminution of her pay. 

SCOTUS disagreed, as Justice Kagan wrote for the majority:

Muldrow need show only some injury respecting her employment terms or conditions. 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. …

She was moved from a plainclothes job in a prestigious specialized division giving her substantial responsibility over priority investigations and frequent opportunity to work with police commanders. She was moved to a uniformed job supervising one district's patrol officers, in which she was less involved in high-visibility matters and primarily performed administrative work. Her schedule became less regular, often requiring her to work weekends; and she lost her take-home car. If those allegations are proved, she was left worse off several times over.

This decision makes legal sense, but I agree Justice Alito, who, in his concurring opinion, said the quiet part out loud:

I see little if any substantive difference between the terminology the Court approves and the terminology it doesn't like. 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.

In other words, legal standards with wiggle room leave room for judges to do what they want as long as they can find some facts in the record to support their decision. Perhaps that's the more significant takeaway here than the actual holding of the case itself.