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How a recent Supreme Court ruling affects discrimination cases

The vast majority of employment discrimination cases don’t make it up to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the court agrees to hear one, the subsequent ruling can affect people all over the country – for better or worse.

A ruling this spring is an interpretation of existing law that expands the ability of employees to bring a valid discrimination claim. The law at the center of the case is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a federal law that prohibits private employers with at least 15 employees from discriminating in “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” based on protected characteristics like race, religion, sex and more.

The case heard by the court

The question at hand was whether the discrimination alleged by the plaintiff was legally actionable. Generally, courts have ruled that plaintiffs must have suffered a serious adverse action due to discrimination – like not being hired or being fired or having their pay cut.

The plaintiff in this case is a female police sergeant who was transferred from her job and replaced by a male. A lower court dismissed her claim that she was transferred because her employers wanted a man in the position. It ruled that because neither her rank nor her salary was lowered, the transfer didn’t put her at a “materially significant disadvantage” even though she claims that her new job had less prestige and a less desirable schedule. 

How much harm has to be done?

That word “significant” was noted in the rare unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court. It said that Title VII requires that “some” harm involving “an identifiable term or condition of employment” must be done, but not necessarily “significant” harm. It ruled that she could pursue the case. 

This ruling will undoubtedly help some employees pursue discrimination claims. Nonetheless, it can be a challenge to prove that harm, whether significant or not, was done based on an employee’s protected characteristics. Many employers know better than to write or say something to that effect or engage in a clear pattern of discrimination. However, many others aren’t so careful. Either way, if you believe you’ve been harmed by employment discrimination, it’s smart to get legal guidance to assess your case.