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Warning to Employee Not Adverse Employment Action Under Title VII

    Client Alerts
  • May 21, 2010

Employees who complain of discrimination must show that the employer has taken some substantive action that materially affects the terms and conditions of their employment. For years, federal courts have struggled with drawing the line as to what adverse employment actions by the employer rise to the level of actionable discrimination under Title VII. Last week, in Howard v. Walgreen Co., the Eleventh Court of Appeals concluded that an oral warning about unexcused absences alone is not an adverse employment action.

The plaintiff in this case was an African-American pharmacist who missed several days of work due to illness. He alleged that his supervisor left him a voicemail message claiming that the plaintiff had not followed call-in procedures, and that his job was in jeopardy as a result. He filed suit, claiming that the warning was motivated by the supervisor's hostility toward him due to his race, and in retaliation for his prior opposition to such behavior.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed a jury verdict for the plaintiff. The court concluded that regardless of the supervisor's motivation for making the warning, a voicemail message threatening the plaintiff's employment fell well short of an adverse employment action under Title VII. The plaintiff was not terminated, demoted or even actually reprimanded. His discrimination and retaliation claims failed as a matter of law.

Not everything that an employee views as negative rises to the level of an adverse employment action under Title VII. To proceed with a claim of discrimination or retaliation, the plaintiff must demonstrate an objectively reasonable belief that the claimed discrimination resulted in some material impact on their employment status.