U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Retaliation

June, 2006

On June 22, 2006, the United States Supreme Court held that the anti-retaliation provision under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not limit retaliatory actions to those that are employment related or occur at the workplace.  The court also held that the same provision requires a plaintiff to show that an employer's actions would have been materially adverse to a reasonable employee or applicant.  The low standard adopted in this case will likely result in increased claims by employees and could have a significant impact on employers.

In this case, Sheila White, a forklift operator at Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway made a sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor to company officials.  Her supervisor was suspended and ordered to attend training.  Soon after White made the complaint she was assigned to a less desirable and more rigorous position and was told that, "a more senior man" should have the "less arduous and cleaner job" of forklift operator.  White then filed a gender-based discrimination and retaliation claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  After this claim was filed, White and her new supervisor had a disagreement and White was suspended without pay for insubordination.  After the grievance proceedings, White was found not to have been insubordinate and received back pay for the period of her suspension.  White filed another retaliation claim arising from her suspension. 

The issue in this case was whether an employer's actions have to be employment or workplace related and how harmful must the actions be in order to constitute retaliation.  Addressing the first issue, the court held that, "an employer can effectively retaliate against an employee by taking actions not directly related to his employment or causing him harm outside the workplace."  Limiting an employer's actions to only those related to employment or occurring in the workplace would frustrate the purpose of the anti-retaliation provision. 

Addressing the second issue, the court applied the reasonable person standard and held that the plaintiff must show the employer's action to have been materially adverse, meaning it would have dissuaded a reasonable worker from "making or supporting" a discrimination claim.  The court applied the material adversity standard in order to filter out "minor annoyances" that occur at the workplace.  The court also pointed out that context is very important in these cases.  Something that may be minor to one employee may be quite significant to another.  Accordingly, the facts in each case "should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position, considering 'all the circumstances.'"

The result of this case could be significant for employers because it makes retaliation claims much easier for plaintiffs to prove than an underlying discrimination claim.  Because of the significant risks involved when a supervisor or manager receives these types of complaints, it is important that supervisors and managers receive proper training about how to respond to employee complaints.

If you would like more information about discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, please contact Cascade.


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