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Supreme Court ruling affects discrimination concerns related to adverse action

On Behalf of | May 14, 2024 | Employment Law |

In a landmark decision on April 17, 2024, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that strengthens employee rights. The court determined that workers can now more easily sue employers for discrimination if they are subjected to unwanted job transfers, even if they experience no pay cut or demotion. This decision lowers the bar for proving discrimination in such cases and offers significant protection against discriminatory workplace practices.

Previously, employees facing forced transfers (and other kinds of adverse employment actions) had a difficult path to legal recourse. Lower courts often dismissed discrimination claims unless the transfer resulted in a significant disadvantage, such as a pay cut, loss of benefits or a demotion. This left many employees feeling stuck in situations where they were targeted based on race, sex, religion or national origin but unable to prove sufficient harm.

Significant disadvantage requirement

The high court’s recent ruling throws out the “significant disadvantage” requirement. In writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan stated that employees only need to show “some harm” from the transfer to pursue a discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This broader definition of harm could encompass a variety of negative impacts, such as:

  • Loss of professional development opportunities: Being transferred to a department with fewer learning opportunities or limited career advancement paths.
  • Change to a less desirable work environment: A transfer to a department with a history of hostility, lower morale or a lack of resources.
  • Increased workload or stress: Being assigned significantly more duties or responsibilities that won’t be compensated under the transferred position.
  • Damage to reputation: A transfer to a role seen as less prestigious or challenging within the organization.

The court’s decision emphasizes that a forced transfer can be a form of discrimination even if it doesn’t directly affect an employee’s salary or title. This empowers workers to challenge discriminatory actions that aim to sideline or disadvantage them within the company.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, argued for an even simpler approach – any transfer motivated by a protected characteristic like race or sex should be considered discriminatory, regardless of the specific harm caused. While the court ultimately adopted the “some harm” standard, Kavanaugh’s perspective highlights the potential for future legal arguments that further strengthen employee protections.

Overall, the Supreme Court’s decision is a positive step towards creating a more equitable workplace environment. By lowering the bar for proving discrimination in cases involved in adverse employment actions, the court empowers employees to fight against discriminatory practices and hold employers accountable. This decision sends a clear message that all employees deserve fair treatment, regardless of their position within a company.