April, 2007

EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION AND RETALIATION BY EMPLOYERS

            For as long as federal law has prohibited discrimination in the workplace, it also has separately prohibited punishing, or “retaliating against,” an employee who opposes the prohibited discrimination. Employment discrimination can occur on the basis of factors such as race, sex, and religion. Usually, there is an anti‑retaliation provision found in the same laws that prohibit the underlying discrimination.

            There are dozens of federal statutes with anti‑retaliation provisions. The policy of protecting those who object to what they perceive as unlawful discrimination is so ingrained in federal civil rights law that it has even been read into laws by implication, even though it was not there in black and white. In 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance, also implicitly prohibits retaliation against individuals who oppose conduct that allegedly violates Title IX.

 

Court Expands Retaliation Claims

            In the 2006 term, the Court took the additional step of articulating an expansive standard for determining what types of employer conduct, when accompanied by a retaliatory motive, can support a cause of action for retaliation. The underlying case concerned a claim of sexual harassment, but the ruling has ramifications for all claims based on retaliation for opposing civil rights violations. As the 2006 case itself demonstrated, with the right set of facts it is possible for a plaintiff to be successful on a claim of retaliation, even though the underlying claim of discrimination has failed. The two types of wrongful conduct are independent of one another.

            In this case, the plaintiff was the only woman working in the track maintenance department of a railroad. She asserted that she was subjected to sexual harassment by her supervisor, in the form of insulting and inappropriate remarks. Because the employer took prompt corrective action, including punishment of the harassing supervisor, it had no liability for the harassment claim itself.

            However, even as the employer took its corrective action, it also reassigned the plaintiff from her job as a forklift operator to a harder, dirtier, and generally less desirable job. Later, the railroad also suspended the plaintiff for over a month without pay for alleged insubordination, although, in time, the railroad’s own grievance committee found no insubordination and awarded her back pay for the period of the suspension.

            In a unanimous decision, the Court rejected requirements that some lower courts had imposed for showing prohibited retaliatory conduct, and allowed a jury verdict for the plaintiff on her retaliation claim to stand. Under the now‑abandoned tests, the conduct either had to amount to failing to hire, failing to promote, or termination, or it at least had to materially change the “terms and conditions” of employment. Instead, the Court adopted a rule by which any adverse retaliatory action may support a retaliation claim, as long as it is reasonably likely to dissuade employees from engaging in protected conduct.

 

Context Is Significant

            As the Court put it succinctly, in determining when an employer action constitutes prohibited retaliation, “context matters.” In a hypothetical example mentioned by the Court, while a change in the schedule of many employees may have little impact, such a change as a form of retaliation may be so significant to the mother of school‑age children that it would deter her from complaining about discrimination at work. Similarly, an employer’s failure to invite an employee to lunch is normally not the stuff of retaliation, unless it was a weekly lunch meeting that was important to any employee’s advancement in the company.

            A petty slight or minor annoyance is still not enough to support a claim for retaliation. That said, the risk of confusing such behavior with more significant adverse action is significant enough that employers are now well advised to give their managers the following straightforward direction: Do not do anything to punish someone for having opposed an employer practice that is alleged to be discriminatory.

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