April 17, 2024

SCOTUS Defines the Level of Harm Needed to Establish Title VII Claim

An employee alleges her employer transferred her from one job to another because she is a woman. Her rank and pay remained the same in the new position. Her responsibilities, perks, and schedule did not. After the transfer, she no longer worked with high-ranking officials. Instead, she supervised the day-to-day activities of other employees. She also lost access to a take-home vehicle and had a less regular schedule involving weekend shifts.

That was the scenario in this case. The lower courts found in favor of the employer. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found she “had to – but could not – show that the transfer caused her a ‘materially significant disadvantage’…the transfer ‘did not result in a diminution to her title, salary, or benefits’ and had caused ‘only minor changes in working conditions.'”

On April 17th the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. It held, “An employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII must show that the transfer brought about some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment, but that harm need not be significant…To make out a Title VII discrimination claim, a transferee must show some harm respecting an identifiable term or condition of employment. What the transferee does not have to show is that the harm incurred was ‘significant’.”

Bottom line. Ensure all your employment decisions are based on bona fide business reasons, not any protected class, not even in part.

Fun fact for word nerds. The defendant employer said the Court should consider ejusdem generis. I appreciated the court explaining what that is or I would have had to look it up. Among other things, Title VII makes it unlawful “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate” based on sex. Ejusdem generis suggests a general phrase following an enumeration of things should be read to encompass only things of the same basic kind. Specifically, the phrase, “or otherwise to discriminate” should be read to refer to similar and significant employment actions like failing or refusing to hire or discharge.  The high Court disagreed finding nothing in the statutory language that suggested that.