Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court drafted a broad new legal standard for judging whether a company retaliated against an employee for complaining about discrimination. (Burlington Northern v. White)
To rise to the level of illegal retaliation, an employer’s action must be “materially adverse” enough to dissuade a reasonable worker from filing a discrimination charge.
Now, the lower courts are starting to define what that standard means. The news is good for employers. In one local case, the court said that, to be “materially adverse,” an employer’s actions must be more than the trivial annoyances and petty slights that often occur at work.
Recent case: Manal Hanani, a naturalized citizen born in Egypt, applied for a promotion at work, but was passed over in favor of a white employee. She quickly shot off an EEOC complaint, claiming she’d been rejected because of her national origin.
She later added a second piece to her complaint: She’d been retaliated against at work for filing the original complaint.
For example, she said that after the complaint, the agency edited her written reports more heavily and that grammar corrections were made to embarrass her. She also said that she had to do more microfilming, which meant she sometimes had to stay late.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Pennsylvania) dismissed the case. None of these slights and inconveniences amounted to the sort of materially adverse actions that the Supreme Court meant when it came up with the new retaliation standard. These were not significant changes to her job, but trivial harms that most employees sometimes endure. (Hanani v. State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Resources, et al., No. 05-3157, 3rd Cir., 2006)
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