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In the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005-06 term, which saw two new conservative justices, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., assume the bench and change the court’s ideological balance, few could have predicted the number of significant victories for workers. Issuing decisions notable for their lack of dissent, as well as their largely pro-employee results, the court rejected the heightened standards for retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 favored by employers and several courts of appeals; provided a more expansive view of certain evidentiary and jurisdictional issues under Title VII; and enlarged the scope of compensable work for wage and hour employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The most anticipated employment case of this term was Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 126 S. Ct. 2405 (2006), in which the court considered the proper scope of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision. In a landmark 9-0 ruling written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, which surprised both employers and employees alike, the court held that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII prohibits a broad spectrum of adverse actions against an employee-not simply employment-related actions-and the challenged action need only be harmful enough to dissuade a reasonable worker from complaining of discrimination. In so ruling, the court resolved a split among the circuits and specifically rejected the more exacting employment-related and “ultimate employment action” standards favored by several lower courts. Plaintiff Sheila White, a forklift operator at Burlington, complained about sexual harassment and was thereafter reassigned to the less desirable position of track laborer. Soon after filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge alleging discrimination and retaliation, she was suspended without pay, allegedly for insubordination. Although later reinstated with back pay, White filed suit alleging that the reassignment and suspension amounted to unlawful retaliation under Title VII. A jury agreed and awarded her compensatory damages. A divided 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment and found in Burlington’s favor on the retaliation claims. After a rehearing en banc, the full court of appeals affirmed the judgment for White, but differed on the proper standard to apply.
SUPREME COURT REVIEW
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