The U.S. Supreme Court has expanded an employee’s right to sue for retaliation, ruling last week that discriminatory retaliation against employees comes in all forms and does not have to be related to hiring, firing, promotion, or permanent loss of pay. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, Case No. 05-259, June 22, 2006.
Sheila White, a 5-foot-one-inch forklift operator, was the first woman hired by Burlington Northern Railroad to work on the tracks in Tennessee. After she complained of sexual harassment, her supervisor was disciplined, but White was also was reassigned as a track laborer. Her new post required her to lift 100-pound jackhammers, haul rocks, travel constantly, and work longer hours.
A week after White filed a retaliation claim with the EEOC, Burlington Northern suspended her for insubordination. 37 days later, she was reinstated with back pay following an internal investigation.
White next filed a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who complain about discrimination. Burlington Northern argued that it had the right to reassign White to other duties, and that she had already been compensated for her suspension. But a jury concluded that White had been the victim of illegal retaliation and awarded her $43,000. Burlington Northern appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court sided with White. The court held that “the anti-retaliation provision [of Title VII] is not limited to discriminatory actions that affect the terms and conditions of employment.” Instead, the court found that any “materially adverse” employment action that “might have dissuaded a reasonable worker” from complaining about discrimination counts as prohibited retaliation.
The Supreme Court’s new standard gives broader legal protection against retaliation for employees who complain about work place discrimination or harassment. Employers should now be aware that, depending on the context, any action taken against employees who have complained of discrimination may be sufficient to support a retaliation claim, even if it falls well short of firing, promotion, or a loss of pay.

Keesal, Young & Logan Employment Law Group