We Protect Workers

How a Supreme Court ruling helps employees facing discrimination

The U.S. Supreme Court and its justices have been making a lot of national and international news lately. One case it ruled on earlier this year in a rare unanimous decision has flown largely under the radar. However, that decision can affect employees all over the country who have suffered workplace discrimination.

As our readers may know, a lot of workplace protections are provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Commonly known as Title VII, this federal law prohibits most employers (those with a minimum of 15 employees) from discriminating based on a person’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Just what constitutes discrimination that’s legally actionable? Generally, courts have determined that a plaintiff needs to show that they suffered an adverse action, like being fired, demoted or having their pay cut. Not being hired could also qualify.

How much harm has to be suffered?

A lower court dismissed a Title VII case in which a female police sergeant claimed that she was transferred so that she could be replaced by a man. The transfer didn’t affect her salary or her rank. However, she said that she had fewer responsibilities and less status in her new assignment. The lower court determined that even if the transfer was based on her gender, she didn’t suffer a “materially significant disadvantage.”

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that Title VII states that “some” harm related to “an identifiable term or condition of employment” must be done. It doesn’t say “significant” harm. The fact that any harm is done based on a person’s identity is enough to make the discrimination actionable.

Employees (including the one in this case) are still required to prove that the harm was based on a protected characteristic. This can be a challenge – especially if employers are smart enough not to have a history of discrimination or of saying derogatory things about people of a particular gender, race, nationality or other protected group. That’s why having legal guidance is crucial if you’re considering bringing a claim.