Civil and Human Rights

Muldrow v. City of St. Louis

In Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, the Supreme Court considered whether an individual challenging employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act must show that the discrimination caused a “materially significant disadvantage.”

Case Summary

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from “discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to h[er] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow filed suit against her employer, the City of St. Louis, claiming it violated this provision by transferring her to a new position and subsequently denying a transfer request because of her sex.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri granted summary judgment for her employer, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed, holding that Muldrow did not show that her transfer or denied transfer request was an “adverse employment action”—a “tangible change in working conditions that produces a material employment disadvantage.” Muldrow filed a petition for a writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review that decision. In September 2022, CAC filed an amicus curiae brief urging the Court to grant the petition and reverse the ruling of the Eighth Circuit, and the Court agreed to hear Muldrow’s case.

On September 4, 2023, CAC, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed an amici curiae brief on the merits of the case. Our brief made three main points.

First, our brief argued that Title VII’s plain text prohibits transferring an employee because of her sex. At the time Title VII was enacted, the ordinary public meaning of “discriminate” was “to make a difference in treatment or favor.” As such, treating someone differently with respect to her “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” on the basis of a protected characteristic violates Title VII, regardless of whether the discrimination produces materially adverse effects. The plain meaning of the text therefore prohibits the transfer of an employee from one position to another because of her sex, because such a transfer necessarily changes the terms, conditions, or privileges of an individual’s employment.

Second, our brief argued that the court below imposed requirements with no basis in the statutory text. The lower court stated that in order to make a prima facie showing of discrimination, a Title VII plaintiff must show a “tangible change in working conditions that produces a material employment disadvantage,” and that “[a] transfer that does not involve a demotion in form or substance” is insufficient for liability. This is at odds with the text of Title VII’s antidiscrimination provision, which contains no such requirements. We explained that although Title VII’s antiretaliation provision has been interpreted to require a showing of material adversity, that provision uses different language than the antidiscrimination provision and also has a distinct purpose. Therefore, this requirement does not apply to Muldrow’s discrimination claim.

Third, our brief showed that requiring a plaintiff alleging disparate treatment to show a materially significant disadvantage is contrary to Congress’s plan in passing Title VII. The Court has repeatedly emphasized the idea that “the paramount concern of Congress in enacting Title VII was the elimination of discrimination in employment,” and that the statute extends to discrimination “subtle or otherwise.” Significantly, the Supreme Court has previously found one particular Senate report discussing a precursor to the statute relevant to identifying which categories of employer actions Congress prohibited, and that report anticipated that the anti-discrimination provision’s scope would be sweeping.

In sum, a transfer decision made on the basis of sex violated Title VII because it inherently changed the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. Imposing additional requirements contradicted the statute’s text and undermined Congress’s plan in passing it.

In April 2024, the Court unanimously held that employees challenging a job transfer under Title VII need not demonstrate that the transfer resulted in a “materially significant” harm. Echoing our brief’s textual analysis, the Court explained that “the text of Title VII imposes no such requirement.” As a result, individuals seeking to bring Title VII claims in the future will no longer be held to a heightened standard with no basis in the text of the statute.

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