What is “materially adverse” when establishing a retaliation claim?

Three elements of a prima facie retaliation case.

The Supreme Court expanded the scope of retaliation in Burlington N. & Santa Fe Rwy. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006).  To establish a claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must show:

1)         they engaged in protected activity;

2)         the defendant took action that would be “materially adverse to a reasonable employee or job applicant”; and,

3)         there is a causal connection between the protected activity and the asserted adverse action.

What does “materially adverse” mean?

Materially adverse means harmful enough to “dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”  Burlington, 548 U.S. 68.

Suspending supervisory responsibilities or significantly reducing responsibilities.

A suspension, demotion, or termination can be materially adverse.  However, taking away an employee’s supervisor duties or significantly reducing their responsibilities can also be materially adverse for the purpose of establishing a retaliation claim. Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 364 (D.C.Cir.2007) (“[W]ithdrawing an employee’s supervisory duties … constitutes an adverse employment action.” (quoting Stewart, 352 F.3d at 426) (internal quotation marks omitted)); id. at 365 (observing that “reassignment… with significantly diminished responsibilities” would constitute an adverse employment action); Kessler v. Westchester County Dep’t of Soc. Serv., 461 F.3d 199 (2d Cir. 2006); Davis v. City of Sioux City, 115 F.3d 1365 (8th .Cir. 1997)

Reprimand or negative job performance evaluation.

A reprimand or negative job performance evaluation can be materially adverse. Nye v. Roberts, No. 03-1683, (4th Cir. 2005) (unpublished) (In this case, however, the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find that, in the context of the Board’s system of progressive discipline, the reprimand and performance evaluation resulted in a material change in Nye’s employment status.); Kim v. Nash Finch Co., 123 F.3d 1046 (8th Cir. 1997) (“…he received much lower performance evaluations than he had received before filing his employment discrimination charge…  There was also evidence that Nash Finch had ‘papered’ his personnel file with negative reports, including two written reprimands.”)

Pursuing false criminal charges.

Pursuing false criminal charges against an employee can be materially adverse. Burlington N. & Santa Fe Rwy. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“An employer can effectively retaliate against an employee…Berry v. Stevinson Chevrolet, 74 F. 3d 980, 984, 986 (CA10 1996) (finding actionable retaliation where employer filed false criminal charges against former employee who complained about discrimination).”; Berry v. Stevinson Chevrolet, 74 F.3d 980 (10th Cir. 1996) (“Other courts concluding that Title VII extends to former employees have held that the filing of charges can constitute the requisite adverse action.”); Beckham v. Grand Affair of NC, Inc., 671 F.Supp. 415 (W.D.N.C. 1987)

Creating or perpetuating a hostile work environment.

Retaliatory harassment can constitute an adverse employment action. Von Gunten v. Maryland, 243 F.3d 858, 865 (4th Cir. 2001); Noviello v. City of Boston, 398 F.3d 76 (1st Cir. 2005) (“The weight of authority supports the view that, under Title VII, the creation and perpetuation of a hostile work environment can comprise a retaliatory adverse employment action under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).  See, e.g., Von Gunten v. Maryland…”).

 

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

 

Hostile Work Environment: Making a Prima Facie Case

Employment discrimination can take the form of workplace harassment.  To be actionable in federal court, the level of harassment has to be severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.  For instance, a workplace that is saturated with sexual jokes, slurs, or innuendo could constitute a sexually hostile work environment.  A workplace that is saturated with racial jokes, slurs, or innuendo could constitute a racially hostile work environment.

A hostile work environment can be actionable if an employer is aware of the harassment but fails to take prompt and effective corrective action.  The employee generally has a duty to complain to the employer about the harassment.

In order to establish a prima facie hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the alleged conduct:

1) was unwelcome;

2) resulted because of [race, sex, national origin, religion, etc.];

3) was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to alter the conditions of [his or her] employment; and,

4) was imputable to [his or her] employer.

Ocheltree v. Scollon Prods., Inc., 335 F.3d 325, 338 (4th Cir. 2003).

First, a plaintiff can demonstrate that the harassment is unwelcome by complaining about it.

Second, if a female employee is the victim of sexual jokes, slurs, or innuendo from a male co-worker or supervisor, the harassment is assumed to be because of her sex.  The same can be said about harassment that targets an employee’s race, national origin, or religion.

Third, the offensive conduct must be sufficiently severe or pervasive.  Generally, the offensive conduct must be more than incidental.  For example, a few instances of racial or sexual name-calling may not be actionable.  However, a workplace where racial or sexual name-calling is a daily occurrence could be actionable. Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179 (4th Cir. 2001); Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 22 (1993) (”A discriminatorily abusive work environment…can and often will detract from employees’ job performance…”)

Fourth, an employer can generally be found liable for a hostile work environment when the employer: 1) has knowledge of the harassment, and, 2) fails to take prompt and effective corrective action. Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998); Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S.775 (1998).

If you are a victim of a hostile work environment, seek the advice of an experienced attorney as soon as possible.

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

 

 

Hostile Work Environment And Diminished Job Performance

A hostile work environment is a workplace that is hostile, abusive, and intimidating.  Federal laws prohibit workplace harassment that is based on an employee’s race, sex, religion, national origin, age, or disability. 

In Amirmokri v. Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., 60 F3d 1126 (4th. Cir. 1995), based on evidence that Amirmokri was called names including “the ayatollah,” “the local terrorist,” and “camel jockey,” the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the case to go to trial on the issue of hostile environment harassment.  The Court focused on evidence that Amirmokri’s supervisor had intentionally embarrassed him by assigning him impossible tasks and telling co-workers that he was incompetent, which may have negatively affected both his performance and its evaluation.

Working in a hostile work environment can result in diminished job performance.  In Weiss v. United States, 595 F.Supp. 1050 (1984), a Virginia federal court stated, “…an employer cannot use an employee’s diminished work performance as a legitimate basis for removal where the diminution is the direct result of the employer’s discriminatory behavior.”

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

www.baclaw.com

Published in: on January 5, 2011 at 5:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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