SCOTUS hears arguments in Missouri sex discrimination case


Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 23: Associate Justice Samuel Alito sits during a group photo of the Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on April 23, 2021.

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Muldrow v. St. Louis on Wednesday. The case asks whether a Missouri police sergeant was the victim of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when she was involuntarily transferred from an intelligence role to a patrol position because her supervisor preferred a man for her job.

Title VII only bars employment decisions as illegally discriminatory if those decision cause a significant disadvantage for the employee. Though an employee may prefer one role over another, that preference is not quite the same thing as a “disadvantage” for civil rights purposes.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit made up of U.S. Circuit Judges James B. Loken, a George H.W. Bush appointee, Bobby Shepherd, a George W. Bush appointee, and David Stras, a Donald Trump appointee, sided with the police department.

Jatonya Muldrow, a sergeant with the St. Louis Police Department, filed a lawsuit against the department, alleging that she was the victim of sex discrimination because she was involuntarily transferred from her position in the department’s Intelligence Division to a patrol position because her supervisor wanted to hire a man for her job. 

While at the Intelligence Division, Muldrow worked on public corruption and human trafficking cases, served as head of the Gun Crimes Intelligence Unit, and oversaw the Gang Unit. She worked Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. or 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Muldrow was also deputized as a Task Force Officer by the FBI for its Human Trafficking Unit, which meant she had the same privileges as other FBI agents, including access to FBI field offices and databases, the opportunity to work in plainclothes, access to an unmarked FBI vehicle, authority to conduct human trafficking-related investigations outside of the St. Louis city limits, and the opportunity to earn up to $17,500 in annual overtime pay.

In 2017, Muldrow’s new supervisor made multiple personnel changes which included reassigning Muldrow to the Fifth District where she became responsible for administrative and supervisory duties of patrol officers, arrests, and reported crimes. In her new role, Muldrow was required to work a rotating schedule that included weekends, wear a police uniform and drive a marked police vehicle, and work within a controlled patrol area. She earned the same salary, but was no longer eligible for the FBI’s overtime pay. However, other overtime opportunities were available to her.

Under Title VII, 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 protected characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Loken wrote for the panel of the Eighth Circuit and said that Muldrow’s deposition testimony that the work at her new position “was was more administrative and less prestigious than that of the Intelligence Division” was not persuasive without more evidence. Loken noted that Muldrow only spent eight months in the Fifth District, and the brief reassignment “did not harm her future career prospects.” The appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling that the defendant police department was entitled to summary judgment in its favor.

On appeal, the justices are not considering whether Muldrow was actually fired because she is a woman, as that would be a matter for the finder of fact to decide after hearing evidence at trial. Rather, they are reviewing the summary judgment ruling to decide whether, as a matter of law, Title VII considers a transfer to be the kind of adverse employment action that would give rise to a civil claim if it were done on the basis of a protected characteristic such as sex.

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