June 22, 2006
Supreme Court Expands Retaliation Claims Under Title VII
On June 22, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, which involved the scope of an employee's retaliation claims under Title VII. Before this decision, many lower courts held that an employee was protected from retaliation only with respect to "ultimate employment decisions," such as termination, demotion with loss of pay, etc.
In this case, the employee in question claimed that she was retaliated against because she was transferred to a more demanding job, after she filed a lawsuit against the employer for sexual harassment, even though she did not suffer a change in pay. The Supreme Court held that this type of employment action can be actionable retaliation. In fact, the Court's holding indicates that a retaliation claim can even be based upon acts not directly related to the employment, such as actions occurring outside the workplace.
The Court instructs that to be actionable, the retaliatory conduct in question must be of a type that would dissuade an objective, reasonable person from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. It need not involve an "ultimate employment decision." The context of the action is important. In sum, the Supreme Court's ruling broadens the protections for employers who complain about discrimination, or who participate on behalf of another employee who complains. Covered employers should be very careful to avoid any conduct which could be seen by a reasonable person to have the impact of dissuading an employee from standing up for his, her, or some other person's legal rights pertaining to discrimination.