The Supreme Court’s 2006 Burlington Northern decision concluded that employers engage in retaliation against protected employees when they take action that would deter a reasonable person from filing an EEOC charge or participating in the investigation of a discrimination complaint. Since this decision, employers and courts have struggled with the definition of exactly what events constitute actions that fall under this standard. Last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) concluded that allegations of retaliation can involve conduct well below that required for employment discrimination claims.
In Williams v. Prince William Cnty. Va., the plaintiff was reassigned to another job and filed an EEOC charge alleging harassment and discrimination based on gender. In her lawsuit against the county, the plaintiff alleged that she had been retaliated against after she filed the initial charge. She pled incidents involving a change of offices and equipment, exclusion from meetings, and the setting of unachievable goals as the basis for this claim. The district court dismissed the retaliation claim on the basis that the alleged conduct did not rise to the level of adverse employment actions necessary to support a retaliation claim under Title VII.
On appeal the Fourth Circuit reversed this decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The court distinguished the legal standard for adverse actions in retaliation claims from those for discrimination under Title VII. While the plaintiff’s claims may not have been material enough to constitute gender discrimination, they did meet the initial pleading requirement for retaliation actions under the lower Burlington Northern standard.
Employers facing discrimination claims should remain cautious about taking steps that may be viewed as adverse by the complaining employee. Actions that do not involve pay decreases or major disciplinary steps may still be deemed potentially retaliatory. Employers should thoroughly investigate and document the circumstances surrounding such actions, and make certain that the remedial steps taken are consistent with policies and past practices.