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Turning the Other Cheek: Illegal Workplace Retaliation

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If you were a supervisor and one of your subordinates went to your company and said you were discriminating against him or her, wouldn’t you hold a grudge? Wouldn’t you want to get them fired, and if you couldn’t do that, at least make their lives more difficult? Of course you would (and if you honestly wouldn’t even want to, see your parish priest about nomination for sainthood and/or enjoy nirvana). That is why there is more retaliation going on in American workplaces than there is discrimination (and there is plenty of that going on too).

It is illegal under federal law (Title VII § 704) to retaliate against an employee for complaining about workplace discrimination. That applies to everyone from the employee’s supervisor all the way up the food chain to the CEO. But people being what they are, they retaliate anyway. There are many time-honored forms of illegal retaliation, among them firing, demoting, transferring, changing work schedules, cutting bonuses, assigning lame accounts or thorny clients, and general day-to-day hassling.

In the past what was and wasn’t illegal retaliation was unclear, partly because the federal appellate courts disagreed with each other about the definition, and partly because different federal courts within each circuit (i.e. group of states) agreed with each other about how to word the rule against retaliation but disagreed about what it meant. Time was that in many circuits you could get away with retaliation as long as you did it outside the workplace. That left the door open for prank calls, letting air out of tires, toilet papering, and any other non-work-related harassment that was short of a misdemeanor.

In some circuits, you could transfer an employee to a distant office or put the employee on the graveyard shift, as long as what you did was not a “materially adverse change in the terms and conditions” of employment. In yet other circuits the line you couldn’t cross was the “ultimate employment decision,” meaning you couldn’t fire, cut pay, demote, or take other actions of similar severity, but anything less was okay. Then there were the circuits that said illegal retaliation encompassed anything that was likely to dissuade “a reasonable worker” from complaining about discrimination. Those circuits won when the Supreme Court resolved the whole mess a few years ago in a case called Burlington Northern v. White, which closed the door to retaliation outside the workplace.

In Burlington the employee, Sheila White, filed suit against her employer, Burlington Northern, for discrimination and retaliation. The retaliation she alleged consisted of changing her job responsibilities and suspending her for 37 days without pay, though the company later paid her for those 37 days. The Supreme Court decided that even though the change in her job responsibilities was not a demotion, and even though she ultimately received all of her pay, she had still suffered illegal retaliation. The change in job responsibilities was a change from the relatively clean job of operating a forklift to the much dirtier and more arduous tasks of cleaning up railroad rights of way and carrying heavy loads back and forth. And the 37 days she didn’t receive any pay included Christmas; there was no money for gifts in the White household that year. The Supreme Court said that a reasonable employee could easily look at what Burlington Northern did to White and decide that reporting discrimination to this employer just wasn’t worth it.

So, problem solved – everyone across the country now knows that even actions unrelated to the workplace can constitute retaliation. If only.

The problem with our courts is not judicial activism, but the opposite. I don’t know if it is a question of effort, ability, or just not giving a damn, but somehow courts managed to mess up the Supreme Court’s clear ruling when they tried to apply it in their own cases. One example is Hicks v. Baines, a case in the Second Circuit (which encompasses Connecticut, New York, and Vermont).

The issue that tripped up the Hicks court had to do with what is called the prima facie case, which just means that there is a certain minimum amount of evidence or argument that a plaintiff has to provide just to stay in court. Satisfying that minimum often doesn’t take much, but a plaintiff has to know what exactly to show in order to keep a case alive.

In Burlington Northern the Supreme Court made it crystal clear that you couldn’t sidestep the rule against retaliating by doing your retaliation outside of the workplace. Even if your retaliatory acts had nothing to do with the victim’s employment, they were still illegal as long as they would dissuade a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination. So what does the Second Circuit in Hicks say that plaintiffs have to show to satisfy the minimal prima facie case and stay in court? An “adverse employment action.”

That’s right. According to the Second Circuit, just to keep the case alive, just to satisfy the bare minimum standard, the plaintiff has to show that the retaliation involved the employer doing something nasty that was work-related. The really jaw-dropping part is that the court laid this out in its written opinion just after a long discussion about Burlington Northern and how the Supreme Court had decided that anti-retaliation protection “extends beyond workplace-related or employment-related retaliatory acts and harm.”

Fortunately for the plaintiffs in Hicks, the retaliatory actions that they alleged were all employment-related, so the Second Circuit’s bizarre mistake did not affect the outcome of their case (for the record, they won part of it and lost part of it).

The important takeaway from Burlington: any retaliation for complaining about workplace discrimination is illegal, whether it is work-related or not, as long as it would dissuade a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination. The important takeaway from Hicks: it’s not just judges’ political inclinations that you have to watch out for. Take a look at their GPAs too.

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