Workers can sue firms over retaliation, Supreme Court rules
In two rulings Tuesday, the justices took an expansive view of civil rights law.
American workers who complain about race or age discrimination on the job can sue their bosses for any subsequent retaliation.Skip to next paragraph
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In two decisions announced on Tuesday, the US Supreme Court embraced an expansive view of certain civil rights laws that do not explicitly outlaw acts of retaliation.
Nonetheless, the majority justices said the overall purpose of the laws suggests an intent by Congress to prevent discrimination – including retaliation aimed at punishing those who file age- or race-discrimination complaints.
At issue in both cases was whether Congress had created a cause of action in the law to permit retaliation lawsuits.
While some laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ban retaliation in response to any discrimination complaint, other important civil rights laws make no mention of retaliation.
The majority justices ruled that employees can claim legal protections against retaliation even if the law does not specifically bar acts of retaliation.
Writing for the majority in one of the cases, Justice Stephen Breyer cited two prior decisions of the high court in 1969 and 2005 as supporting an expansive view of such laws. "We believe it is too late in the day in effect to overturn the holding in that  case," Justice Breyer writes for the seven-justice majority in CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries.
In a dissent, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia said if Congress intended for a law to cover retaliation it would have said so in the statute. "The court does not even purport to identify any basis in the statutory text for the 'well-embedded interpretation [of the law]' it adopts for the first time today," Justice Thomas writes. Unlike the court, he said he found the statute's text conclusive.
Court declines to take more restricted approach
Both decisions are important because they affirm a trend at the high court embracing an expansive reading of civil rights laws. Some analysts had suggested that the court might adopt a more restrictive approach to such laws – making it harder for victims of discrimination to sue – after the 2006 retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor and the arrival on the court of her replacement, Justice Samuel Alito.
But that question was answered with today's decision. Justice Alito voted with the majority in both cases and authored the majority opinion in the second case, Gomez-Perez v. Potter.
In both cases, employees sued their supervisors for alleged acts of retaliation in the workplace after the workers had made initial complaints about discriminatory conduct by managers. One suit was filed under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The other was filed under the public employee section of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Neither law mentions retaliation.
The decision in the Humphries case involves a former assistant manager at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Bradley, Ill., who was allegedly fired in retaliation for his repeated complaints about racial prejudice by his supervisor.
Hedrick Humphries, who is African-American, had worked for three years at the Cracker Barrel. In 2001, he complained to a district manager that the general manager at the Bradley restaurant made racially offensive remarks and that the general manager's termination of a black employee had been racially motivated.
The district manager took no action against the general manager. Instead, he fired Mr. Humphries based on a report that Humphries had left the store safe open overnight. Humphries denies the allegation.
Humphries filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under both Title VII and Section 1981. The EEOC verified his complaint and issued a letter authorizing him to file suit in federal court.
By the time Humphries filed his lawsuit, the Title VII complaint was dismissed because he missed a deadline to pay his filing fee. No such deadline exists for Section 1981 suits, so that portion of the suit survived the first challenge. But the Section 1981 complaint was later thrown out because the judge found there was insufficient evidence to support a suit.