Apr 18, 2024 - Business

How a new decision from the Supreme Court complicates the DEI landscape

Illustration of a gavel with an extra long handle that loops all around itself and all over the image in a squiggly pattern.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A Supreme Court decision that came down Wednesday could complicate the diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, landscape even further.

Why it matters: The court's decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis comes as DEI efforts inside companies, in government offices and at universities are under attack.

The big picture: It's a tricky situation. The decision will likely be good for workers who believe they've been discriminated against on the basis of sex or race.

  • Yet it could also open the door to make it easier for anti-DEI activists to challenge programs that they view as discriminatory. And that could over the long-term affect workers benefitting from such programs.

Catchup fast: Police Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn Muldrow filed a lawsuit under the federal civil rights law alleging she was transferred out of a job as a plainclothes officer into a worse role — she had to put on a uniform and work weekends, for example — so that a man could take her place.

  • But because she didn't suffer a hit to her pay, lower courts said there was no significant harm to merit remedy from a court.
  • The Supreme Court disagreed, saying that you only need to show some kind of harm.

The big picture: Some employment lawyers believe that this reasoning, that the harm needn't be significant, could make it easier for workers to sue employers over some classic diversity programs like fellowships or mentorships that only accept certain ethnic groups or genders.

  • "Anti DEI groups 'will see this as an opening' to launch new attacks on diversity programs," a lawyer at the Legal Defense Fund told Bloomberg. Still, she praised the ruling overall.

The bottom line: The DEI landscape was already an elaborate maze for companies and now it's gotten a little bit harder to navigate.

Go deeper