Last week, the USA Supreme Court ruled on the matter of Burlington Northern v. White, a sexual discrimination case. Basically, the woman involved had been verbally harassed by a male supervisor in front of her all male colleagues. When she ultimately complained, he was discplined, but she was essentally demoted, and trumped up disciplinary charges brought against her (she was off work for 37 days without pay). For details of the case, read the summary here.
The reason this had made it to the Supreme Court was so that a decision could be made about what constitutes unfair labour practice and discrimination. “The court accepted the case to resolve what is called a ‘split’ among the lower courts: different appeals courts had adopted differing standards for determining the level of harm necessary for an action to constitute retaliation under Title VII. Some courts required an ‘ultimate employment action’ (firing, demotion or decisions with ‘tangible economic consequences’). Others required only that the action be ‘materially adverse,’ and still others required that the action be ‘likely to deter’ complaints of discrimination.” The Supreme Court had to decide where to draw the line in issues of workplace discrimination. The outcome has huge implications for women and all minorities in America.
The Court ruled last week.
The Supreme Court agreed with White, ruling that retaliation can be any action likely to dissuade a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination. The Burlington Northern opinion recognizes that there are innumerable ways for an employer to “yank the chain” of a worker to send a message that complaints are unwelcome.
Thankfully, the Supreme Court got it that working mothers are especially vulnerable and that messing with flexible scheduling arrangements is serious business for women across the economic spectrum. Explaining the reasoning behind the court’s decision, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend upon the employee’s particular circumstances: “(C)hange in an employee’s work schedule may make little difference to many workers, but may matter enormously to a young mother with school-age children.”
The fact that the decision was unanimous, and that 8 of the 9 justices–Samuel Alito was the exception–approved a flexible and employee-centered deterrence standard, is especially good news for working mothers and others with caregiving responsibilities. Sheila White’s victory will undoubtedly have a profound effect on the lives of all employees, but working women owe her a particular debt of gratitude for persevering in her nine-year struggle for justice.
A full transcript of the Court’s ruling is available here.