High Court Lowers the Bar on Title VII Claims: “Significant” Harm No Longer Required

On April 17, 2024, the Supreme Court decided that employees do not need to suffer “significant” harm to state a claim of discrimination under Title VII.  In so ruling, the Court rejected a level of proof as to harm that many lower courts had long required Title VII plaintiffs establish in suing their employers.  That level of proof effectively often limited actionable claims only to those that involved “ultimate employment decisions,” such as hiring, firing, promotions, and compensation setting. Accordingly, the Court’s ruling may well mean that discrimination claims that would have failed in the past for lack of “tangible harm” will now be allowed to proceed.

In Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, a female police officer sued the city police department, alleging that she was transferred from one job to another because she is a woman and that such transfer violated Title VII. The district court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed Muldrow’s claim because she had not shown that the transfer caused a “materially significant disadvantage,” since the transfer did not adversely affect her title, salary, or benefits, and had caused “only minor changes in working conditions.” Numerous other courts across the country had relied on the same or substantially similar proof standard for years, requiring plaintiffs to show that they suffered a “material change,” a “tangible job detriment,” or an economically “adverse action.”

In its unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court squarely rejected the notion that Title VII requires a plaintiff to show that an allegedly discriminatory act result in an injury that is “significant…serious, or substantial, or any similar adjective.” According to the Court, the plain language of the statute imposed no such burden.  In so holding, the Supreme Court joined the D.C. and Fifth Circuits, which had recently reached the same essential conclusion. As the Supreme Court explained, “the text of Title VII imposes no such requirement.”

The majority, however, then went further and proclaimed that, while plaintiffs are not required to show “significant” harm, they must nevertheless show that they suffered “some” harm.  Exactly what constitutes “some” harm was left undefined. As Justice Alito stated in his concurring opinion, “I have no idea what this [new standard] means...”

Given the lack of clarity on this lowered proof standard, courts will have to flesh out exactly what harm plaintiffs need to establish to successfully challenge an employer’s allegedly discriminatory act.  What is clear is that employers will now have to face Title VII challenges involving employment decisions that may have been dismissed in the past because they did not cause “significant” harm to a plaintiff.  “Some” harm is now all it takes.1

See Footnotes

​1 The majority opinion noted that this lowered proof standard may not apply to retaliation claims under Title VII.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.