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Memphis labor-case namesake reaps D.C. honor

Sheila Parrish White-600Sheila Parrish White – whose name will forever be linked to railroads, discrimination and the U.S. Supreme Court – was honored for her commitment to justice in Washington, D.C. this week.

Congressman Steve Cohen, who noted White's "dedication to the cause of justice," presented her with a book – "Women of Congress." During a conversation, the two discussed the myriad contributions women have made to the development of the nation.

White of Memphis is the central figure in what is known as the Sheila White Anti-Workplace Retaliation Act. She was the plaintiff in the landmark case, Burlington Northern & Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006).

The United States Supreme Court case dealt with the issues of sexual harassment and retaliatory discrimination. It set a precedent for claims that could be considered retaliatory under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

White worked as a track laborer for the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. She sued BNSF, claiming railroad supervisors retaliated against her after she went to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission with two complaints.

White was sure that she was the victim of gender discrimination. She says her supervisors learned of her EEOC complaints, charged her with insubordination, took away her assignment as a fork-lift operator, and suspended her for 37 days without pay.

A federal jury saw it the way White did, concluding that she was the victim of unlawful retaliation. BSNF was ordered to pay $43,500 in compensatory damages, plus $3250 for White's medical expenses.

After the railroad appealed, the case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. BNSF tried to make the case that the anti-retaliation section of Title VII was not applicable.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the railroad's argument and sided with White.

According to the Supreme Court, the railroad clearly violated the anti-retaliation law by taking away White's assignment as a forklift operator and suspending her without pay for more than a month based on an untrue charge of insubordination.

White now is one of the subjects in the upcoming documentary "From Memphis to Philadelphia – Where Women Have Come Sixteen Years Since the Million Woman March." The film's producer, writer and director is Memphian George W. Tillman Jr., who says it will debut in Philadelphia on Oct. 19. A special screening will take place at Malco on the Square in Memphis on June 19 in conjunction with the annual Juneteenth celebration.

The film highlights women who have made an impact on the progress of women.

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