Supreme Court to Hear Police Officer’s Sex Discrimination Case

Supreme Court to Hear Police Officer’s Sex Discrimination Case
The United States Supreme Court during a warm autumn day in Washington, on Oct. 22, 2020. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum
7/16/2023
Updated:
7/17/2023
0:00

The Supreme Court will hear the case of a Missouri police sergeant who claims illegal discrimination was behind unfavorable employment decisions made against her.

Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow of the St. Louis Police Department claims she was forced out of the intelligence unit, transferred to a different job, and denied a requested transfer because she is a woman. In other words, she claims that after serving in a high-level capacity, she was placed in a dead-end job because of her sex.

The court will wrestle with what protections Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 affords an employee who claims she was the victim of a discriminatory transfer.

That statute makes it unlawful for a private employer or a state or local government “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 such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Specifically, the court said it will consider the following question: “Does Title VII prohibit discrimination in transfer decisions absent a separate court determination that the transfer decision caused a significant disadvantage?”

The court granted the petition (pdf) in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis (court file 22-193) in an unsigned order on June 30 as the justices issued a flurry of orders so they could leave town for the summer recess. No justices dissented. At least four of the nine justices must vote to grant a petition for it to move forward to the oral argument stage.

For many years, Ms. Muldrow was a sergeant with the St. Louis Police Department. From 2008 through 2017, she worked in the department’s intelligence division on public corruption and human trafficking cases. She was also head of the gun crimes unit and oversaw the department’s gang unit. She had considerable experience with violent crime and was known as a “workhorse,” according to her petition.

The petition states that in the lead-up to the transfer ordered by her supervisor, Ms. Muldrow noticed that in front of her, her supervisor addressed similarly situated male officers according to their rank, but refused to do so with her. He told sergeants in the intelligence division that he didn’t believe in “blind transfers,” that is, compelling the transfer of an employee without discussing the matter first with the employee. But without warning, he transferred her to the department’s Fifth District, claiming he did so because the role she had been in for the previous 10 years was too “dangerous.”

The supervisor replaced Ms. Muldrow with a male officer and transferred the other two female officers in the intelligence division. Her pay remained the same but her schedule, responsibilities, workplace environment, and other job requirements and benefits changed dramatically.

In the intelligence division, she worked regular business hours from Monday through Friday, with weekends off, but in the Fifth District, she was made to work a rotating schedule, with few weekends off. Her intelligence and human trafficking duties were taken away. Now she performed only “routine tasks” such as “patrolling and investigating crimes” as her responsibilities shifted to “basic entry-level police work” instead of the “more sensitive” and “important investigations” that make intelligence “the premier bureau” in the department.

Intelligence was housed within the police headquarters, allowing its officers to work directly for the chief of police and improving their networking opportunities because of proximity to commanders and high-profile individuals. But the Fifth District was located a distance away from headquarters, where she “never really met anyone,” according to the petition.

In intelligence, she could wear plainclothes but when she moved to the Fifth District, she had to wear a uniform, duty belt, and vest, which added an extra 15 to 25 pounds and caused her discomfort because she had suffered an on-the-job injury years earlier that gave her ongoing back and neck problems.

The transfer also damaged her reputation because it made it seem as if she had been disciplined for misconduct.

Dissatisfied with the forced transfer, Ms. Muldrow sought a new position within the department as an administrative aide to a captain—a post only available to sergeants—but superior officers told the captain, it “was not going to happen” and “there is no way we’re getting [Ms. Muldrow] here” because “they are not going to let you have her.” The position was “high-profile” and involves a consistent, as opposed to rotating, schedule with weekends off and “extra bonuses,” the petition stated.

She sued in state court, citing the reassignment to the Fifth District and failure to transfer her to the administrative aide position. The department had the case moved to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, which granted summary judgment to the department, finding that under U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit precedent, a discriminatory transfer that doesn’t “produce a material employment disadvantage” is “not an adverse employment action.”

The 8th Circuit then ruled against Ms. Muldrow, finding the forced transfer and refusal to transfer were not actionable under Title VII as “adverse employment actions.”

The Biden administration sided with Ms. Muldrow, urging the Supreme Court to decide whether Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment is restricted to employer actions that lead to a worker experiencing “a materially significant disadvantage.”

Ms. Muldrow’s attorney, Brian Wolfman of the Georgetown Law Appellate Courts Immersion Clinic in Washington, and the city’s attorneys, in-house lawyer Sheena Hamilton, and Robert Mark Loeb of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe in Washington didn’t respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

The case is expected to be heard in the Supreme Court’s new term that begins in October.