Determined whether an employer violated federal anti-discrimination law when it responded to an employee's sexual harassment complaint by transferring her to a less desirable job and later suspending her without pay for over a month.
In addition to ruling against Ms. White’s employer, the Supreme Court also adopted an expansive standard by which courts will evaluate such claims in the future, as urged in an amicus brief submitted by a coalition of women's groups and employees' rights organizations and joined by Legal Momentum.
Sheila White worked as a forklift operator at her employer's Memphis, Tennessee rail yard. The only woman in her department, she faced constant comments from her supervisor that women didn't belong. After Ms. White complained, company officials transferred her to a less desirable track laborer position. She filed a discrimination charge with a federal agency, and soon after was charged with insubordination and suspended without pay for 37 days, although a union grievance later was resolved in her favor and her lost pay restored. Ms. White filed another discrimination charge, alleging that that the suspension constituted further retaliation.
A jury agreed, and awarded Ms. White almost $45,000 in emotional distress damages. The railroad appealed, but the Sixth Circuit affirmed, joining the majority of federal circuits in finding that any "adverse employment action" caused by an employee's discrimination complaint violates Title VII. In defining what conduct is sufficiently "adverse" to violate the law, the court used the same standard applied to other discrimination claims, namely, adverse enough to affect the "terms and conditions" of employment, and found that Ms. White's job transfer and her suspension without pay met that standard.
The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the holding that the rail yard illegally retaliated against Ms. White.