On April 17th, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court (Court) issued a ruling involving employees and the concept of “significant harm.” Chiefly, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), employees do not need to suffer significant harm to claim discrimination. Consequently, the ruling rejected a level of proof of harm that many lower courts required. Explicitly, that level of proof limited claims to those involving “ultimate employment decisions.” Examples of those types of decisions include hiring, firing, promotions, and compensation agreements. Previously, the Court ruled on the standard for undue hardship involving religious accommodations.

Background of the Case

In general, in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, a female police officer sued the city’s police department. Specifically, she alleged that she was transferred from one job to another because she is a woman. For that reason, she believed the job transfer violated Title VII. However, the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed the claim. According to both rulings, the plaintiff did not show that the transfer caused a “materially significant disadvantage.” Examples of disadvantages include changes to:

  • title,
  • salary, or
  • benefits

The district court and Eighth Circuit also ruled that the transfer caused minor changes in the working conditions.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on federally protected classes. Altogether, these classes include race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. The law makes it clear that it is unlawful for an employer to:

  • fail or refuse to hire an applicant,
  • discharge any employee, or
  • otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to their compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of the individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

In addition, the law requires employers to reasonably try to prevent and correct the behavior. Finally, Title VII protects employees who object to discrimination from retaliation or any adverse employment action against an employee exercising their rights.

Supreme Court Ruling

Eventually, the Court agreed to hear the plaintiff’s appeal. In its unanimous ruling, the Court rejected the notion that Title VII requires a plaintiff to show significant harm in a discrimination claim. Basically, according to the Court, the statute’s plain language imposes no such burden. In its ruling, the Court also stated that while plaintiffs are not required to show significant harm, they must show they suffered some harm. However, there was no clarification from the Court regarding the definition of “some harm.”

Employer Takeaways

In conclusion, although the Supreme Court ruled on the concept of significant harm, there is still confusion over the idea of “some harm.” Meanwhile, employers should continue to follow the laws dictated under Title VII but with a realization that any “harm” levied against an applicant or current employee could be considered discrimination.