Court Opinions: US Supreme Court Opinions for April 17

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Muldrow v. City of St. Louis

Sgt. Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow maintains her employer, the St. Louis Police Department, transferred her from one job to another because she’s a woman. From 2008 through 2017, Muldrow worked as a plainclothes officer in the department’s specialized intelligence division. In 2017, the new intelligence division commander asked to transfer Muldrow out of the unit so he could replace her with a male police officer. Against Muldrow’s wishes, the department approved the request and reassigned Muldrow to a uniformed job elsewhere in the department. While Muldrow’s rank and pay remained the same in the new position, her responsibilities, perks and schedule didn’t.

After the transfer, Muldrow no longer worked with high-ranking officials on the departmental priorities lodged in the intelligence division, instead supervising the day-to-day activities of neighborhood patrol officers. She also lost access to an unmarked take-home vehicle and had a less regular schedule involving weekend shifts.

Muldrow brought this Title VII suit to challenge the transfer. She alleged that the city, in ousting her from the intelligence division, had “discriminate[d] against” her based on sex “with respect to” the “terms [or] conditions” of her employment. 

The district court granted the city summary judgment. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding Muldrow had to — but couldn’t — show the transfer caused her a “materially significant disadvantage.” Muldrow’s lawsuit couldn’t proceed, the court said, because the transfer “did not result in a diminution to her title, salary, or benefits” and had caused “only minor changes in working conditions.”

The U.S. Supreme Court held an employee challenging a job transfer under Title VII must show the transfer brought about some harm with respect to an identifiable term or condition of employment, but that harm need not be significant. 

In its opinion, the court noted Title VII makes it unlawful 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 such individual’s . . . sex.” Both parties agree Muldrow’s transfer implicated “terms” and “conditions” of Muldrow’s employment. The court explained applicable statutory language prohibits “discriminat[ing] against” an individual “with respect to” the “terms [or] conditions” of employment because of that individual’s sex.

That language requires Muldrow to show her transfer brought about some “disadvantageous” change in an employment term or condition. The words “discriminate against,” the court explained, refer to “differences in treatment that injure” employees. In the typical transfer case, that worse treatment must be “with respect to” employment “terms [or] conditions.” The “terms [or] conditions” phrase is not used “in the narrow contractual sense.” It covers more than the “economic or tangible.” Still, the phrase circumscribes the injuries that can give rise to a suit like this one, the high court noted. 

What the transferee doesn’t have to show is that the harm incurred was “significant” or otherwise exceeded some heightened bar, the Supreme Court found. “Discriminate against” means treat worse, here based on sex. Neither that phrase nor any other establishes an elevated threshold of harm, the court explained. To demand “significance” is to add words to the statute Congress enacted, it noted. It is to impose a new requirement on a Title VII claimant, so the law as applied demands something more than the law as written. That difference can make a real difference for complaining transferees. By asking whether the harm to the transferee is significant, appellate courts have disregarded varied kinds of disadvantage. 

The Supreme Court also noted there is reason to doubt the city’s prediction that employees will flood courts with litigation in the absence of a significant-injury requirement. Courts retain multiple ways to dispose of meritless Title VII claims challenging transfer decisions. But even supposing the city’s worst predictions come true, that would be the result of the statute Congress drafted. The opinion noted the high court won’t “add words to the statute to achieve what the city thinks a desirable result.”

The court found the appellate courts in this case applied the wrong standard to Muldrow’s suit. Muldrow need show only some injury respecting her employment terms or conditions. Her allegations, if properly preserved and supported, meet that test with room to spare, the Supreme Court found. But the court recognized the previous decisions in this case may have rested in part on issues of forfeiture and proof. It noted it would leave such matters for lower courts to address on remand under the proper Title VII standard. 

The judgment was vacated and the case was remanded.

Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson joined. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr. and Brett Kavanaugh each filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

McIntosh v. United States

Louis McIntosh was indicted on multiple counts of Hobbs Act robbery and firearm offenses. The indictment set forth the demand that McIntosh “shall forfeit . . . all property . . . derived from proceeds traceable to the commission of the [Hobbs Act] offenses.” The government also later provided McIntosh with a pretrial bill of particulars that included as property subject to forfeiture $75,000 in cash and a BMW McIntosh purchased just five days after one of the robberies. 

After a jury convicted McIntosh, the district court imposed a forfeiture of $75,000 and the BMW at the sentencing hearing. Although the district court also ordered the government to submit an order of forfeiture for the court’s signature within a week from the hearing, the government failed to do so. On appeal, the government moved for a limited remand to supplement the record with a written order of forfeiture. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals granted the unopposed motion.

Back in district court, McIntosh argued the failure to comply with Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.2(b)(2)(B) — which provides that “[u]nless doing so is impractical,” a federal district court “must enter the preliminary order [of forfeiture] sufficiently in advance of sentencing to allow the parties to suggest revisions or modifications before the order becomes final as to the defendant” — meant the district court couldn’t proceed with forfeiture at all. 

The district court overruled McIntosh’s objections, finding the rule is a time-related directive, and the failure to enter a preliminary order of forfeiture before sentencing didn’t prevent the court from ordering forfeiture because the missed deadline didn’t prejudice McIntosh.

The 2nd Circuit affirmed in relevant part.

The U.S. Supreme Court held a district court’s failure to comply with Rule 32.2(b)(2)(B)’s requirement to enter a preliminary order before sentencing doesn’t bar a judge from ordering forfeiture at sentencing subject to harmless-error principles on appellate review.

The judgment was affirmed.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the unanimous opinion.

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