The Reality of Materiality: Why a Heightened Adversity Standard Has No Place in Title VII Discrimination Claims

March 1, 2023

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination in the workplace.  Except, according to certain lower courts’ limiting interpretations, for when it does not.  Circuit courts have spent decades imposing an extratextual materiality requirement onto Title VII in contravention of its broad remedial purpose.  Accordingly, countless victims of discrimination are unable to seek recourse because their alleged harm was purportedly too insignificant to constitute actionable discrimination under Title VII.  This materiality requirement not only presents an additional substantive hurdle for plaintiffs, but also leads to inconsistency and unpredictability, as each circuit fumbles to define what conduct is too “de minimis” to qualify as discrimination.  However, several circuit courts recently acknowledged the problems that this materiality requirement poses, suggesting that an interpretive shift in favor of plaintiffs bringing discrimination claims may be on the horizon.

This Note argues that reading a significance requirement into Title VII flies in the face of its statutory purpose, clear congressional intent, and its liberal interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Any showing of objective harm, regardless of whether a court deems such harm material, should suffice to allow a Title VII plaintiff to seek relief without fear of immediate dismissal.  Although eliminating the need to allege a materially adverse action will broaden the scope of actionable discrimination claims, this Note argues that this will not overwhelm the courts as proponents of the materiality requirement fear.  Because the statute expressly limits its reach to discrimination that relates to the “terms, conditions, and privileges of employment,” concerns about unlimited employer liability in the absence of a significance requirement are unfounded.  Moreover, eliminating this obstacle would protect victims of discrimination from the additional injustice and humiliation of being told that their experience was too “de minimis” to merit judicial intervention.

March 2023

No. 4