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Supreme Court Holds Employers Liable for Workplace Retaliation

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that an employee could collect monetary awards from her employer for retaliating against her for sexual harassment complaints, broadening worker protection under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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    Today's unanimous decision by the high court affirmed protections from retaliation for workers who sue their employers for discrimination.

    Joining me now is NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal. She was in the courtroom for the arguments back in April and for today's decision.

    And, Marcia, what was the core question that the Supreme Court was being asked to decide?

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    Well, this case involves Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has as its main provision prohibition against discrimination, in the terms and conditions of employment, on the basis of someone's race, color, religion, gender, national origin.

    But it also has another provision that's known as the anti-retaliation provision, in which it prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee who brings a claim of discrimination or an employee who helps someone bring that claim of discrimination.

    The lower courts have been all over the map on how to determine what kind of an action by an employer constitutes illegal retaliation. This case came to the court, asking it to resolve that disagreement among the circuits as to how to judge the employers' action.


    But if a prohibition against retaliation was already part of the law, and has been on the books for more than 40 years, what was the employee in this case, Sheila White, really asking for?


    Well, first of all, the provision itself, Congress did not define what a retaliatory act was, and that's why the lower courts had developed various tests for measuring, well, the illegality of the employer's action.

    Sheila White won in the lower courts. She showed that the actions taken against her were, according to the court she was in, materially adversely affected her employment.

    The court today addressed that. The employer was the one who brought the appeal to the Supreme Court, felt that the court had — the lower court had applied the wrong test, and wanted a different approach here.


    So in the 9-0 decision that resulted, do we now have a standard that everybody can understand what it is, of what retaliation looks like, what discrimination in this kind of case looks like?


    We do have a standard. The court, which was lead by Justice Stephen Breyer, did two important things here.

    The first thing Justice Breyer said was this anti-retaliation provision doesn't just reach an employer's action in the workplace. He said that there may be actions by an employer outside the workplace that constitute illegal retaliation.

    For example, he gave a true case involving an employer who filed false criminal charges against a former employee who had complained of discrimination, and also a notorious FBI case in which an agent claimed discrimination and the FBI refused to investigate death threats made against that agent by a federal prisoner.

    So he said retaliation can be just as injurious outside of the workplace and can also intimidate a worker from filing a discrimination complaint, if it happens outside or in the workplace.

    The second thing he said was the test. He said that you have to separate the trivial from the significant when it comes to what an employer does here. The employer's action has to result in significant injury.

    So the test for the courts and juries is this: It's a materially adverse action, such that a reasonable person would likely be dissuaded from filing a discrimination claim. The reasonable person test is something that courts, he said, are very familiar with, and it's an objective test. It's a reasonable person standing in your shoes.

    He also said context matters, and this is important because, he said, for example, what if an employer, after you have complained of job discrimination, changes your work schedule? Well, to many employees, that may not mean a whole lot. But perhaps to a woman with young children, it means a lot and it is retaliation, because it makes her unable to perform her job and take care of her children at the same time, so context matters.


    Marcia Coyle, thanks a lot.