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Supreme Court Decision Update - Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White

supreme2.jpgIn Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White (PDF of the Opinion), the Supremes take on workplace discrimination, and ultimately create a broader standard for employees in retaliation cases.

QuizLaw Analysis: There had been some confusion amongst the Circuit Courts about whether the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII (which prohibits workplace discrimination) was confined to actions that occurred in the workplace or related to employment. The Supreme Court has now put the issue to rest, holding that the anti-retaliation provision — unlike the substantive provisions of Title VII, which only apply to actions occurring at the workplace or related to employment — is not so confined.

The case itself concerns Sheila White, who was the only female forklift operator in her department at Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. (Burlington). After White complained of sexual harassment, her immediate supervisor was disciplined and ordered to take sexual harassment training. Nevertheless, White was taken off of forklift duty and reassigned to standard track laborer tasks, which was a less desirable position. She complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that the reassignment was illegal workplace discrimination and retaliation for filing the initial sexual harassment complaint. That complaint, however, led to her 37-day suspension for insubordination. Burlington later learned that she had not been insubordinate, however, and reinstated her, giving her 37 days of back pay. Nevertheless, White brought a lawsuit against Burlington, asserting that the reassignment and suspension amounted to unlawful retaliation.

The Supremes, in a 9-0 decision, agreed. As mentioned above, the Court addressed the issue of whether the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII was confined to actions occurring at the workplace or related to employment. The substantive workplace discrimination provisions of Title VII explicitly limit the scope to actions that affect employment or alter workplace conditions, using language such as “hire,” “discharge,” “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” “employment opportunities,” and “status as an employee.” The anti-retaliation provision, however, did not contain such terms, suggesting that Congress intended to prevent an employer from interfering with an employee’s efforts to secure or advance enforcement of the Title VII’s guarantees. Indeed, the anti-retaliation provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act “seeks to prevent harm to individuals based on what they do, i.e., their conduct.” In Justice Breyer’s decision, he noted that the anti-retaliation provision applies to any actions that “well might have ‘dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’”

In this case, the Supremes agreed with the lower courts, acknowledging that Burlington’s actions were in retaliation for her sexual harassment complaint. Breyer further asserted that, even though White was eventually reinstated and given back pay for the wages she lost during the suspension, the actions in and of themselves would sufficiently dissuade a reasonable worker from making a charge of discrimination. Therefore, under the newly created standard, White’s unlawful retaliation claim succeeded and her $43,000 award was upheld.

Justice Alito wrote separately, agreeing with the majority’s conclusion, but taking issue with the new standard — conduct severe enough to dissuade the filing of a discrimination complaint — fearing that it was too broad and would leave “juries hopelessly at sea.” While he agreed that White was retaliated against, he suggested a different standard: In order to succeed, the retaliatory actions must be “materially adverse” to the complainant’s employment.