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High court eases path for workers' discrimination suits

Employees can sue for retaliation even if bosses don't fire them, the justices ruled Thursday.

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The US Supreme Court has made it easier for workers to sue their bosses for acts of retaliation in the workplace.

In a unanimous decision announced Thursday, the high court established a relatively broad standard empowering employees to take their supervisors to court if they retaliate after the worker has complained about illegal discrimination.

Such lawsuits, which hinge on the antiretaliation section of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, have more than doubled in the past 10 years. They now account for 30 percent of the cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), according to lawyers involved in the case. The average retaliation lawsuit costs about $130,000, the lawyers say.

The Civil Rights Act bars discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. But it also forbids employers from taking adverse action against an employee who attempts to report workplace discrimination.

The question before the high court was: How serious must the retaliation be to qualify as an unlawful employment practice under the civil rights law? Must an employee face a sanction as serious as losing one's job? Or would any adverse action by management that might prevent a worker from speaking up about discrimination qualify as illegal retaliation?

Federal appeals courts across the country have provided vastly different answers to the same questions. On Thursday, the Supreme Court set a single standard in a case called Burlington Northern v. White.

The antiretaliation provision seeks to prevent employers from interfering with their workers' ability to complain about discrimination, writes Justice Stephen Breyer for the court. "It does so by prohibiting employer actions that are likely to deter victims of discrimination from complaining to the EEOC, the courts, and their employers."

Managers and bosses displaying behavior like "petty slights, minor annoyances, and simple lack of good manners" does not constitute deterrence, writes Justice Breyer. But "the significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend upon the particular circumstances. Context matters."

The decision comes from a case filed by Sheila White, who complained about sexual harassment while working in a Tennessee rail yard as a forklift operator for the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad Company.

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