January 1998

Workplace Labor Update - Munday – January 1998

3 min

The federal court of appeals for Maryland and Virginia recently held that, in order to prevail in a claim of retaliation under Title VII, an employee must demonstrate that she suffered a concrete adverse employment action. Munday v. Waste Management, Inc., 126 F.3d 239 (4th Cir. 1997).

In this case, Waste Management terminated Munday, a truck driver, for walking off of the job. After she was terminated, Munday filed a sexual harassment charge against Waste Management with the Howard County Office of Human Rights. In connection with the settlement of her sexual harassment charge, Waste Management agreed to expunge Munday’s termination and reinstate her to her prior position.

During a safety meeting prior to Munday’s return to work, Waste Management managers told employees not to sexually harass Munday, not to socialize with her, and to avoid her as much as possible. When Munday returned to work, employees refused to speak with her and subjected her to various other "work-related unpleasantries." Munday also was assigned to a route other than the one that she had requested. During a meeting several weeks after her return in which Munday raised complaints about her treatment which were later addressed, Waste Management’s General Manager yelled at her because he had heard a rumor that she planned to sue the company again.

The trial court found that Waste Management had retaliated against Munday in violation of Title VII and awarded her back pay as well as compensatory and punitive damages. Reversing the district court’s ruling, the Fourth Circuit held that because Munday had suffered no adverse employment action within the meaning of Title VII, she could not have been the victim of Title VII retaliation. The court explained that, in order to establish a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) he or she engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action against the employee; and (3) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. The Fourth Circuit concluded that Waste Management’s conduct "does not rise to the level of an adverse employment action for Title VII purposes." Rather than address the precise categories of conduct that constitute prohibited retaliation, however, the court reviewed prior precedent and concluded that "[i]n no case in this circuit have we found an adverse employment action to encompass a situation where the employer has instructed employees to ignore and spy on an employee who engaged in protected activities, without evidence that the terms, conditions, or benefits of her employment were adversely affected."

This decision, no doubt, relaxes the pressure many employers have felt in the past to tiptoe around employees who have exercised rights under Title VII for fear that a sidelong glance could be construed as retaliation. It does not change the general premise, however, that employees who have exercised Title VII rights should not be retaliated against and should be treated no differently than any other employee.