United States Supreme Court Holds Retaliation Claim Can be Supported by Any Action that Would Dissuade a Reasonable Employee from Filing a Discrimination Complaint

June 27, 2006

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway v. White (June 22, 2006). This case provides insight into the types of "actions" which support a retaliation claim under Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act.

Sheila White ("White") was the only woman working at the Maintenance of Way Yard in Tennessee for the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Company ("Burlington"). White was hired as a track laborer, a job that involves removing and replacing track components, transporting track materials, and clearing litter and brush from the right of way. During the early stages of her job, White was assigned to operate a forklift, which was generally considered to be a more desirable aspect of the track laborer position.

A few months after starting her position with Burlington, White made an internal complaint about one of her supervisors repeatedly telling her that women should not be working in the Maintenance of Way Department. The offending supervisor was given a 10-day suspension.

After discipline was imposed against the supervisor, White was reassigned from forklift duties to perform standard track laborer tasks. This was because Burlington thought "a more senior man" should have the "less arduous and cleaner job" of forklift operator. In addition, White was placed on a 37 day unpaid suspension for an unrelated dispute she had with her supervisor over work issues. After an investigation of that dispute, White was reinstated to her position and awarded back pay.

After exhausting her administrative remedies, White filed a lawsuit against Burlington which alleged, among other things, retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The two retaliatory acts that White used as a basis for her complaint were (1) the reassignment of her forklift duties; and (2) her 37 day suspension.

The Supreme Court granted review of this case to resolve a disagreement between the circuits regarding the types of actions which support a retaliation claim. Prior to this decision, several circuits applied the standard of a "materially adverse change in terms and conditions of employment" in order to establish retaliation. Other circuits used a less burdensome standard, holding that a plaintiff must show that the "employer's challenged action would have been material to a reasonable employee." The standard in the Ninth Circuit for establishing a retaliation claim was "adverse treatment that is based on retaliatory motive and is reasonably likely to deter the charging party or others from engaging in protected activity."

Burlington argued that a reassignment of duties within the same job description can not support a retaliation claim because it does not materially affect the "terms and conditions" of employment. In addition, Burlington argued that because White was given backpay and reinstated, her 37 day suspension did not materially affect the terms and conditions of her employment. By making this argument, Burlington argued for application of the least onerous standard for retaliation claims. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that these actions could support a retaliation claim because they could have "dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." In reaching this conclusion, the Court held that the standard for a retaliation claim is that a plaintiff must show that the "employer's challenged action would have been material to a reasonable employee."

LEG Practice Advisor: This case arguably expands the types of conduct that could form the basis for a retaliation claim. Any conduct that would dissuade a reasonable worker from making a discrimination charge will support a retaliation claim.

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