Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on several protected classes (like race, sex, and religion). Courts had previously held that the impact to the employee claiming discrimination had to be a “significant employment disadvantage.” In other words, there needed to be an adverse employment action that had some level of importance. In a new opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court (with no dissents), the court ruled that any disadvantage in employment would be enough to bring suit for discrimination under Title VII.

Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow is a police officer in Saint Louis. She claims she was transferred from one job to another by a new captain because she is a woman. The new captain called her “Mrs.” rather than by her rank. She was replaced by a man. She sued for discrimination. The city countered that she was earning the same amount of money at the same rank, therefore she was not disadvantaged. She countered that although her rank and salary remained unchanged, her responsibilities, perks, and schedule did not. Instead of working in plain clothes with high-ranking officials on the departmental priorities lodged in the Intelligence Division, she now supervised the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers. Her new duties included approving their arrests, reviewing their reports, and handling other administrative matters; she also did some patrol work herself. She lost her FBI status and the car that came with it. And the change of jobs made Muldrow’s workweek less regular. She went from a traditional Monday-Friday workweek to a “rotating schedule” that often involved working weekends.

The trial court dismissed her case because she did not suffer a “material employment disadvantage” and couldn’t prove that her chances for promotion were harmed. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. It found that the plain language of Title VII, where it is illegal for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” does not require the harm to be significant. The harm just needs to exist to bring suit. To add significance of the damages would be to add words that Congress did not write into the law.

The court did distinguish the requirement for significant impacts in retaliation claims since retaliation is meant to discourage the filing of complaints. The court also seemed unpersuaded by the argument that a lower standard would open the floodgates for lawsuits. They indicated in some cases, lesser impacts to the employee might suggest less intentional discrimination. They remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the new standard.