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Supreme Court favors employees in setting new standard for the filing of retaliation claims against employers

By: Employment Law Team

On June 22, 2006, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that greatly affects the landscape of employment law, specifically the retaliation provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The specifics of the case involved a female employee who complained to her supervisor about gender discrimination/harassment. The employer investigated her complaint, but subsequently “reassigned” her to a position, stating that her position was owed to a more-senior employee. While the “reassignment” did not reduce the employee’s pay, hours, or seniority, she still filed a retaliation claim against her employer, for which she was successful at trial. The employer appealed and the case made its way to the Supreme Court.

Prior to this ruling, in a majority of courts, in order for an employer to be liable for retaliating against an employee who reported and/or complained about discrimination (age, gender, race, etc), the employer must have taken action against the employee that affected the employee’s “terms, conditions, or status of employment.” The Supreme Court expressly rejected this majority view and instead adopted the minority standard only held by the Seventh and D.C. Circuit Courts, which states that an employee must only show that a “reasonable employee” would have found the action taken by the employer to be adverse, in that action taken by the employer ?could well dissuade a reasonable employee from protected conduct.?

This decision can have a significant effect on any employer who has an employee who reports or complains of discrimination. The practical effect is that once that employee makes the report/complaint, no action can be taken against him/her that a “reasonable” employee would consider adverse. The Court further stated that it is for the jury to decide whether the employee’s belief was reasonable.

This ruling is sure to create many questions, both for employers and the courts. Please contact Burns White with any questions you may have regarding this or any other employment-related issue.