I previously wrote about the Supreme Court’s retaliation decision in Burlington Northern & Sante Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006) (“Burlington Northern v. White”), in which the US Supreme Court substantially broadened the ability of employees to file retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a unanimous (9-0) decision.
I wanted to set out some additional thoughts about Burlington Northern, because it addresses an issue that has troubled the courts in interpreting the federal anti-discrimination laws: When is an employer’s conduct serious enough in disadvantaging an employee so that the employee has a claim under the employment discrimination laws? The answer is easy when the employer’s decision affects the employee’s pocket book, like with termination, failure to hire, demotions, and the like. The answer has been much harder when the employer’s conduct didn’t directly affect the employee’s pocket book.
NBA referees struggle with a similar issue: where is there enough physical contact on the court to justify calling a foul on a player. So let’s explore some parallels between these employment discrimination issues and the NBA’s “no blood no foul” rule.
The NBA’s “No Blood No Foul” Rule
If you watch National Basketball Association games, you might be struck by how much physical contact there is on the court and how rarely the referees call personal fouls over that physical contact. Fans of the NBA have only a partially kidding way to refer to the “standard” by which the referees decide how much contact will result in a personal foul being called. It’s the “no blood no foul” rule. In other words, the referees will allow a lot of physical contact, and will only call a foul when someone gets bloodied as a result of the contact.
Let’s assume, with our tongues in our cheeks, that there is such a rule (no blood no foul) that NBA referees apply, regardless of what is written in the Official Rules. The idea behind the “no blood no foul” rule is this: there is so much fast-paced hurley-burly contact on the basketball court, much of which makes it more exciting for the fans, that calling a foul for any physical contact (or a lower defined level of physical contact) would slow down the game for fans and make the game less enjoyable, unreasonably impede the skill of the players, and makes it impossibly hard for officials to identify “contact”. So the appearance of blood is a more “objective” indication that the contact really mattered and really constituted an unfair interference with the other player.
The Supreme Court Struggles With “When is There a Foul”?
Courts for years have struggled with the employment discrimination equivalent of the “no blood no foul” rule. For the courts, assuming unlawful discrimination occurred: when is the consequence of the discrimination serious enough and objectively discernible so that courts will recognize a claim and intervene by activating the court’s process and potentially awarding damages.
Except for situations involving hostile work environment, the courts have translated the NBA’s blood requirement into a tangible economic consequence. Thus, much in the spirit of the NBA, the courts have said economic harm must be demonstrable as a result of discrimination, or else the courts won’t entertain the claim no economic consequence, no legal violation, case dismissed.
Continue reading Analysis: The “No Blood No Foul” Rule. When is an Employer’s Conduct Severe Enough to Constitute Retaliation?