Summer 2006-13 U.S. Supreme Court rules on retaliatory acts

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Number 64
Summer 2006

U.S. Supreme Court rules on retaliatory acts

In Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway v. White, 2006 U.S. Lexis 4895, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the scope of the anti-retaliation provision extends beyond workplace-related or employment-related retaliatory acts and harm.

A Burlington employee filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because her duties were reassigned after she reported to her supervisor certain incidents regarding gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment. After the employer received the EEOC notice, she was suspended from her job without pay, although 37 days later she was reinstalled with back pay.

Scope to be applied

The U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court judgment favoring both retaliation claims. It applied the retaliation standard in the same manner as the discrimination offense, where the action must "result in an adverse effect on the terms, conditions, or benefits of employment." However, the different federal circuits have used diverse scopes in the application of the aforementioned standard. Based on those grounds, the Supreme Court defined the proper scope that should be applied by the courts when a retaliation action or harm occurs.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court concluded that the anti-retaliation provision does not confine the actions or harms it forbids to those related to the employment or occur at the workplace. Moreover, it stated that the anti-retaliation provision protects an individual not from all retaliation, but from retaliation that produces an injury or harm. The plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, "which in this context means it well might have 'dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.'"

Retaliatory action

In this case the reassignment of duties was considered as a retaliatory action. But the reassignment of duties is not always actionable; it depends on the circumstances of the particular case.

The suspension without back pay was also considered materially adverse in this case, even though the employee was reinstated with back pay. The decision was based in the fact that the fear of economic hardship could induce an aggrieved employee to accept substandard conditions of employment.


© 2006 Goldman Antonetti & Cordova, LLC