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Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Company v. Sheila White Report

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2021

The case under analysis is closely connected with the issue of employment discrimination and aspects of retaliation; the main question, being related to the study of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Company v. Sheila White, is aimed at clarification of adverse employment actions; the main purpose of the case analysis is to study the following points:

  • The anti-retaliation provision of the title VII confining to activities which influence conditions and terms of employment;
  • Harmful effects of the adverse employment actions.

The case concerns Sheila White who was considered to be the only woman to have worked at the department of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. She appeared to be the victim of sexual harassment complaining about the case and making her supervisor be involved in special training. Despite this White was completely taken off her duty being reassigned to less desirable tasks and taking another position. Being unsatisfied with such a matter of facts she complained to the Commission of Equal Employment to prove the illegal side of reassignment and showing the aspects of workplace discrimination and retaliation connected with a sexual harassment complaint.

The complaint made by White resulted in the woman’s 37-day insubordination suspension; the facts showed that the woman had not been insubordinate and as a result, the company gave her back pay for 37 days. White’s lawsuit against Burlington was explained by unlawful retaliation.

The case was disclosed through title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 1964; White’s complaint was grounded by the position of the civil American law protecting employment rights.

Applicable Legal Rules and Observations

According to title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the employees are protected from employment discrimination and retaliation in case of their complaint in accordance with Federal EEOC standards. The case covered the elements of gender-based discrimination and retaliation. The Supremes analyzed the case passing the verdict in the woman’s favor and awarding her about $43,500 as damages compensation and $3,250 as medical expenses. The judgment was reversed by the Sixth Circuit panel; the decision was criticized by the Court of Appeal through inappropriate legal standards.

The question concerns the issue of whether the employer can be held liable under Title VII for any change of materially adverse character considering the employment system, or for any ultimate employment decision. In accordance with the Court conclusions, adverse actions are considered to be “those actions that would have been materially adverse to a reasonable employee or job applicant” (Perritt, 2006) Taking into account the definition provided it should be noted that the employer’s action is of materially adverse character in case it is harmfully causing dissuading to a worker from support or making discrimination charge.

It is important to stress that the decision of the Supreme Court in Burlington Northern implied the availability of compensatory damages to retaliation plaintiffs. The jury award approval was affirmed by the Court sticking to the point that the defendant managed to commit a kind of adverse action, which is characterized by making the position of jobless desirable or more arduous completely changing working terms and conditions. (Kizza, 2007)

Taking into account the new standard, the support of White’s retaliation claims can be considered as sufficient one; Burlington tried to prove the fact that reassignment of White was not that retaliatory conduct explaining it by similar duties performed by the woman. Nevertheless, it was depicted that under title VII job reassignment could not be considered as actionable automatically, as job duties being less desirable can be perceived as actionable; though almost every job position covers duties that can seem to be less desirable.

The analysis of the case has shown that Sheila White really suffered retaliatory discrimination being the reason for the woman’s employer to be held liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Supreme Court agreed on the point that the employee had been the victim of discrimination being reassigned to the less desirable job; it should be noted that even if the duties reassign appeared to be within the similar qualification and the pay was reinstated, the attempts to constitute retaliatory discrimination were sufficiently harsh. It was stated by the Court, that for the purpose of retaliatory discrimination prevail, a plaintiff is to demonstrate that the challenged action was found to be materially adverse by the employee.

Ethical Analysis: statement of facts

Retaliation is considered to be illegal practice as it was shown in the above analysis; it can completely span actions from the experienced demotion of the accuser’s position, salary, or physical abuse. The consequences of retaliation can touch not only managers but also other co-workers being involved in retaliating against the representatives reporting; it can be explained by the fact that unethical practice is equally promoted for everyone.

The case demonstrates the example of an employee’s sufferings a kind of adverse actions on the part of the employer presented in the form of job duties alteration, position reassign, and providing inappropriate work conditions for the woman. Unethical treatment of the company staff and absence of any ethical standards within the company structure led to retaliation complaints of the qualified specialist. The elements of sexual harassment faced earlier, appeared to be completely ignored by the executives for the purpose of not disturbing the company’s reputation and making mass. (Gilliland & Steiner, 2007)

Ethical Issue Statement

It is necessary to underline the fact that the introduction of ethical elements and standards in the working process allows the employees to be aware of their employment rights and work atmosphere. In order to improve the regulations within the company structure, ethic trainees are to work out special programs for the employees being aimed at the promotion of ethical norms in the working process.

The case demonstrated complete ignorance on the part of Burlington Northern until the worker’s complaint as to the problem. To avoid deep analysis of the case by the Court, the company tried to compensate all losses suffered by White; though initial steps were aimed at disclosing ethical reassign of the employee’s position within the same qualification and with the change of the duties character.

Employee’s dissatisfaction with the reassigned position caused jury’s approval of her complaint and providing her award. It was stated that the guilty manager was to visit special training concerning sexual harassment behavior; this step is considered to be appropriate from the position of ethical standards.

Ethical Alternatives

Retaliation in the case under analysis as well as in other cases arises against the law. It should be noted that ethics trainees are to develop company strategies in the atmosphere of no fear for speaking anything up or making a complaint. The encouragement of ethic-related issues within the staff should be specially promoted and proclaimed to be a legal right of everyone. (Killion, & Dempski, 2001)

The Court’s approval of the jury decision in White’s job reassign is to be characterized as the first step in providing ethical norms within the company is the background for further positive staff discrimination. The Court decision was made on the basis of adverse action performed by the employer harming the working conditions of the woman and altering her duties even if they were changed within the same qualification. Ethical steps and alternatives are to be made in accordance with legal policies and employment system regulations protecting the rights of employees within any company structure.

The case under analysis managed to highlight the most important problems covering the issues of workplace discrimination and retaliation. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Company v. Sheila White demonstrated the problematic argument from the legal and ethical point of view.

The case analysis involved new standards and established Civil Rights Act positions under title VII. Retaliation and work discrimination contradict state law and arise against employment policies; the promotion of ethical regulations and introduction of special training for the staff would lead to the improvement of the legal and ethical functioning of the organization as a whole.


Gilliland, S. and Steiner, D. Managing Social and Ethical Issues in Organizations. IAP, 2007.

Guy, M. Ethical Decision making in everyday work situations. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.

Kizza. J. M. Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age. Edition 3, Springer. 2007.

Killion, S. W. and Dempski, K. Legal and Ethical Issues. SLACK Inc., 2001.

Perritt, H. Employee Dismissal Law and Practice. Edition 5, Aspen Publishers Online, 2006.

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