It has long been settled that mistreatment based prohibited characteristics (such as race or sex) is actionable under Title VII even without a tangible employment action – e.g., termination, demotion, or pay cut. These are often referred to as hostile-environment claims. A hostile-environment claim under Title VII requires evidence of mistreatment that is sufficiently severe or persuasive that it can be said to alter the terms or conditions of employment. This measure is meant to draw a dividing line between trivial slights and substantial discrimination.
Nearly a decade ago, the Supreme Court clarified that mistreatment based on retaliation for protected conduct is likewise actionable under Title VII without a tangible employment action. However, the test is different. A retaliatory-hostile-environment claim is actionable when the mistreatment “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 57 (2006).
Accordingly, when dealing with hostile environment caused by retaliation, the court must ask if the mistreatment would have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making a claim of discrimination. When confronted with a hostile-environment-claim stemming from race or sex, the court must ask if the mistreatment was sufficiently severe or persuasive to alter the conditions employment.