A New U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Lowers a Critical Proof Standard in Federal Discrimination Cases

In many workplaces, two jobs might have the same title but still not be equal. Workers with identical titles might work in different areas, under different supervisors, and perhaps perform different duties, meaning their jobs could carry divergent degrees of prestige, differing opportunities for advancement, and even different pay. Given those truths, a lateral transfer – even if not a technical demotion “on paper” – may still be an adverse employment action, a reality that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized earlier this month in its Muldrow v. City of St. Louis ruling. This new decision should serve as a reminder that, if you believe you received a lateral job because of your sex or gender and that transfer set back or harmed your career, it’s worth your while to consult an experienced New York City sex discrimination lawyer about your situation.

One place of employment where this can be true is police departments. In some departments, particular divisions carry more respect and prestige and serve as superior springboards to promotion within the department.

In the St. Louis case -- which was a sex discrimination matter -- the employee was a woman who worked as a police sergeant in the Intelligence Division for nine years. In 2017, the division’s new captain transferred the sergeant. The transfer did not reduce her rank (which remained sergeant) and did not drop her base pay. However, it did trigger a different (and less regular) work schedule, and fewer opportunities for overtime work. The new role was less prestigious than her old job in Intelligence and required her to wear a uniform, duty belt, and vest (whereas she was a plainclothes officer in her old position.)

The officer who replaced J.M. in Intelligence was a man.

The sergeant sued, asserting a claim for sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The federal district court and appellate court both sided with the employer. The appeals court stated that the law required the sergeant to show that she suffered a “materially significant disadvantage,” and the evidence and arguments the sergeant provided didn’t establish that.

No Heightened Standard For Adverse Actions

The Supreme Court rejected that approach. Nothing in Title VII requires that the discriminatory harm a worker encounters be “significant” or that it clear any elevated level of harm. Rather, the court said, the law demands only that the worker show that the action was fueled by discriminatory animus and caused her “some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment.”

The high court specifically declared that its correction of the proper standard of harm in Title VII cases was lower than the erroneous one the court of appeals (and other federal courts of appeals had applied,) and that J.M.’s case cleared this lower standard “with room to spare.” As the majority highlighted, the sergeant “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.” Whether or not this harm was materially significant, it plainly was "some harm," according to the court.

Here in New York City, workers harmed by sex or gender discrimination also have the benefit of the New York City Human Rights Law. This law similarly follows the lower harm requirement. New York City law defines an “adverse employment action” as “any action that negatively affects the terms and conditions of employment.” Specifically, a discriminated worker “must only show differential treatment of any degree based on a discriminatory motive.” The law imposes no obligation to prove that the negative effect was "substantial," "significant," or "material."

This decision is a significant win for workers harmed by discrimination, even if that discrimination did not take the form of a termination, a demotion, a pay cut, or some other obviously adverse action. To get justice and get everything you deserve in your sex discrimination lawsuit, you need a powerful legal team. The experienced New York sex/gender discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to be that diligent and effective advocate for you. We have the knowledge and the background necessary to deliver results for you. Contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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