U.S. Supreme Court ruling may increase counties' legal liability when transferring employees

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Key Takeaways

On April 17, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling in Muldrow v. St. Louis, a case focused on the standard under which an employer is liable for civil rights damages over an unwanted employment transfer. In the case, an employee alleged that her lateral transfer within the St. Louis Police Department was motivated by gender bias and constituted discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act regardless of whether she could demonstrate significant or material harm resulting from the move. 

  • County nexus: In a season of acute workforce shortages, the ability to make lateral transfers without fear of legal action is an important tool for county governments to ensure we have appropriate staffing to meet our various responsibilities for safeguarding the safety, health and wellbeing of our residents. A ruling allowing all lateral transfers, regardless of associated material harm, to qualify as actionable adverse employment actions could profoundly impede the ability of local governments to assign police, fire, and EMS personnel where they are most needed.
  • NACo advocacy: Through the Local Government Legal Center, NACo filed an amicus brief in support of the respondent arguing that adopting the rule advocated by the petitioner that any transfer is actionable under Title VII if based on a protected characteristic would have profound policy implications for local governments in the context of public safety and budget. Learn more here
  • The Court's ruling: In a mixed ruling for counties, the Court's decision vacates the lower court's ruling against the petitioner and creates a new standard under Title VII for lawsuits related to forced employee transfers. An employee must demonstrate "some harm" in a forced transfer suit, which is a lower threshold than the "material" or "significant" harm adopted by many lower courts. However, the Court did not go so far as to adopt the Petitioner’s proposed rule that any transfer, regardless of harm would be actionable under Title VII if based on a protected characteristic. 

Because the Court declined to fully embrace the petitioner's argument in this case, county governments will retain some ability to weed out frivolous claims related to forced transfer. However, counties should examine policies surrounding employee transfers and ensure that proper training is conducted to avoid liability in this area.  

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