Muldrow v. City of St. Louis: Will SCOTUS Lighten the Prima Facie Burden for Title VII Plaintiffs?


For decades, federal courts have held that proving an “adverse employment action,” for purposes of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, requires a showing that the action resulted in material harm or significant disadvantage to the employee. However, on December 6, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, in which the plaintiff, Jatonya Clayburn Muldrow, challenged this longstanding requirement.

The Supreme Court must now determine whether Title VII prohibits discrimination in transfer decisions absent a separate court determination that the transfer led to a significant disadvantage.  The Court is expected to issue its decision in 2024.  If the decision is in Muldrow’s favor, it may broaden the scope of actionable claims under Title VII, thereby restricting an employer’s decision-making ability and substantially reducing the proof required for a Title VII plaintiff to establish a prima facie case.  


Muldrow, a sergeant with the St. Louis Police Department, was laterally transferred from the department’s intelligence division to its Fifth District division. Muldrow did not suffer any economic harm as a result of the transfer, and she kept the same title. However, she alleged the position to which she was transferred was less prestigious and affected her work schedule, overtime pay structure, and work attire. Muldrow’s former intelligence position was filled by a male employee.

Subsequently, Muldrow sued the City alleging her transfer was based on her sex and motivated by gender bias in violation of Title VII. The federal district court dismissed Muldrow’s discrimination claim because she failed to prove her transfer caused “a tangible change in working conditions that produced a material employment disadvantage.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal.

Oral Argument

During oral arguments before the Court, Muldrow submitted that a discriminatory act intrinsically causes the type of harm that Title VII was intended to remedy. Moreover, she asserted that any workplace decision made on account of a protected characteristic, no matter how trivial the act or result, constituted unlawful discrimination under Title VII.

The City argued that lower federal courts have been applying the material harm standard for at least 30 years. The City also argued that this is a low, yet appropriate, bar because it is necessary to reduce the amount of and discard frivolous claims.

Based on their questioning, the justices appeared inclined to support Muldrow’s arguments. Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh pointed out that disparate treatment based on race or sex is inherently discriminatory, seemingly suggesting that concrete harm may not be required under Title VII. Justice Jackson attempted to quell any of the Court’s concern regarding an increase in frivolous claims because a worker must still establish damages, and a lack of damages signifies a meritless claim. Justices Thomas and Barrett foreshadowed issues in applying Muldrow’s logic in other realms of workplace discrimination, such as an employer’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Even though the Supreme Court’s much-anticipated decision will be limited to the transfer context, a ruling in Muldrow’s favor could seep into other areas of workplace discrimination, and the potential ramifications of that are difficult to ignore. This decision would not only broaden the scope of Title VII but also significantly lighten the employee’s burden in establishing a prima facie case of discrimination.  If the Supreme Court sides with Muldrow, we could see an increase in Title VII actions, in which plaintiffs attempt to apply Muldrow’s arguments to other alleged adverse employment actions.

Stay tuned as the attorneys of Maynard Nexsen’s Employment and Labor group closely monitor the Muldrow case for further developments and the Supreme Court’s ultimate decision.

About Maynard Nexsen

Maynard Nexsen is a full-service law firm with more than 550 attorneys in 24 offices from coast to coast across the United States. Maynard Nexsen formed in 2023 when two successful, client-centered firms combined to form a powerful national team. Maynard Nexsen’s list of clients spans a wide range of industry sectors and includes both public and private companies. 

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