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It’s unanimous: Employers liable for retaliation

Sarah Gardner Jun 22, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Sheila White drove a forklift for a railroad company in Tennesee. She complained one day about sexual harassment. And found herself in the railroad equivalent of the night shift sorting those widgets. She sued over that retaliation. Today the Supreme Court came down on her side, nine to nothing. Sarah Gardner reports.

SARAH GARDNER: The Supreme Court upheld a $43,000 jury award to Ms. White, a mother of three who operated a forklift for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in Memphis. She was the only woman in that workplace. After she accused her supervisor of sexual harassment she was transferred to a less desirable job repairing tracks. White was also suspended for 37 days without pay. Marcia Greenberg is with the National Women’s Law Center:

MARCIA GREENBERG: This decision sent, loud and clear, the message that employers retaliate at their peril.

Today’s ruling set a fairly broad standard for retaliation claims. Workers can sue for retaliation, the court said, if the boss’ actions were “materially adverse.” The court said that means actions that could dissuade a reasonable employee from pursuing a discrimination complaint. Stephen Bokat (boh-cat) is general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce:

STEPHEN BOKAT: Our concern is the sort of “reasonable employee” standard is somewhat loose. Depending on the particular facts of the employee’s life, it may or may not be considered adverse. So you can have the exact same treatment of two employees and it could be adverse as to one but not adverse as to the other.

Employment rights attorneys expect today’s ruling will lead to more retaliation lawsuits. Last year alone 30 percent of complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission contained retaliation charges.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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