Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White
548 U.S. 53 (2006)

Facts:

  • Sheila White operated the forklift for the railroad. Her immediate supervisor made some sexist remarks about her doing that job and also insulted her in front of the other works. She complained, and he was forced to attend a sexual-harassment training session.
  • Following that incident, White was removed working the forklift and assigned to standard track duty – a more arduous and less prestigious position. She was also suspended for a period of time for alleged “insubordination.”
    • An internal investigation revealed that she wasn’t insubordinate.
    • She was reinstated and awarded back pay.
  • She then filed a Title VII claim for retaliation.

History:
A jury found in White’s favor, awarding her $43,500 in compensatory damages, including $3,250 in medical expenses.

Issue:
Is Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision confined to retaliation that affects the terms and conditions of employment?

Holding:
No.

Reasoning:
(1) The language of the substantive and anti-retaliation provisions differ in important ways: The terms “hire,” “discharge,” “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” “employment opportunities,” and “status as an employee” explicitly limit the substantive provision’s scope to actions that affect employment or alter workplace conditions. The anti-retaliation provision has no such limiting words.

  • Furthermore, the substantive provision seeks to prevent injury to individuals based on who they are, i.e., their status. The anti-retaliation provision seeks to prevent harm to individuals based on what they do, i.e., their conduct.

(2) The anti-retaliation provision protects an individual not from all retaliation, but from retaliation that produces an injury or harm.

  • “In our view, a plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”
  • Here, even though White wasn’t technically demoted, her reassignment involved more arduous work and a position of less prestige.
  • Furthermore, receiving back pay doesn’t preclude an employee from receiving compensatory damages – here, she was still forced to go without a paycheck during the holiday season, causing emotional distress.

Rule: Title VII’s retaliation provision is NOT limited to employer’s actions that affect terms, conditions or status of employment, or those that occur at workplace.

  • I.e. The scope of the retaliation provision is broader than that of Title VII’s substantive discrimination provision.

Rule: Title VII’s retaliation provision requires showing that reasonable employee would have found employer’s challenged action materially adverse.

  • I.e. That the challenged action could well dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.