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Retaliation, in general, means any act of harm committed in response to an actual or perceived harm.

  • In an employment context, retaliation is punishment of an employee by an employer for engaging in legally protected activity, such as making a complaint of harassment to a governmental body, or participating in workplace investigations. Retaliation can include any negative job action, such as demotion, discipline, firing, salary reduction, or job or shift reassignment.
    • At the federal level, section 15(a)(3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act makes it a violation for any person to “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this Act, or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding, or has served or is about to serve on an industry committee.” Courts have interpreted this provision broadly. For example, in 2011, in Kasten v. Saint Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., the Supreme Court elaborated that the act covers written as well as oral complaints and that “filed charges or given testimony” includes any participation in a National Labor Relations Board investigation. However, the Court explained, “to fall within the scope of the anti-retaliation provision, a complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection.” Thus, while the scope of legally protected actions is read broadly, the employer still must have reasonably had the opportunity to receive notice of the complaint for a plaintiff to prove that an employer retaliated against them.
  • In the international law context, retaliation is the use of diplomatic measures or force in response to a similar use of force. Also referred to as reprisal. For example, the tit-for-tat tariffs between China and the United States during the Trump presidency involved retaliation.
  • In the landlord-tenant law context, it may refer to retaliatory eviction.

[Last updated in December of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]