Just a few months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court established a broad new legal standard for judging whether an employer has retaliated against an employee for complaining about discrimination (Burlington Northern v. White).
The court said that, in order to rise to the level of illegal retaliation, an employer’s action must be “materially adverse” in the sense that it would dissuade “a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Lower courts were left to figure out what exactly the “materially adverse” standard means.
Now, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Texas) has applied the standard to its first retaliation case after the Supreme Court decision. The news is good for employers: 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: Glenda Peace, a secretary at Fort Hood, filed discrimination complaints with the EEOC and then chose to retire. Before she left her position, she claimed took away her parking space, didn’t provide her with a designated seat at a military ceremony and gave her filing work she considered menial.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said none of those slights, though perhaps annoying, rose to the level of “materially adverse.” Employees, it concluded, don’t gain immunity from all the ordinary workplace slights simply because they filed a discrimination complaint. (Peace v. Harvey, No. 06-50402, 5th Cir., 2006)
Final tip: While this decision offers some protection to employers, it underscores the importance of training supervisors in the procedures to follow after an employee files an internal or external discrimination complaint.