Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Workers can sue firms over retaliation, Supreme Court rules

In two rulings Tuesday, the justices took an expansive view of civil rights law.

(Page 3 of 3)

She filed suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), claiming her supervisors had engaged in retaliation and discrimination. Both a federal judge and the Boston-based First Circuit Court of Appeals threw the suit out. The appeals court ruled that the ADEA does not cover acts of retaliation since the word "retaliation" does not appear in the statute.

Skip to next paragraph

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision by a vote of 6 to 3.

The high court also affirmed the Seventh Circuit decision in the Humphries case by a vote of 7 to 2. Chief Justice John Roberts dissented in the Gomez-Perez case but joined the majority in the Humphries case.

Chief Justice Roberts explained his dissent in the Gomez-Perez case in part because "Congress has always protected federal employees from retaliation through the established civil service process."

In upholding the Seventh Circuit on Tuesday, the majority justices said there was no need for Congress to include explicit language about retaliation. Congress's intent to facilitate expansive civil rights enforcement was clear from subsequent congressional amendments to the laws, Justice Breyer writes.

In his dissent, Thomas criticized the majority for retreating behind "the fig leaf of ersatz stare decisis." He accused the majority of misreading prior legal precedents.

Thomas says the high court's decision "creates an entirely new cause of action" unrelated to race discrimination.

"By crafting its own additional enforcement mechanism, the majority returns this Court to the days in which it created remedies out of whole cloth to effectuate its vision of congressional purpose," writes Thomas. "That the court does so under the guise of stare decisis does not make its decision any more justifiable."

Alito, writing for the majority in the Gomez-Perez case, presents the same core legal analysis as Justice Breyer does in the Humphries case. Both decisions cite the 1969 opinion Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park and the 2005 decision Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education.

Alito says Congress meant the ADEA to be a broad, general ban on age discrimination. "Congress was presumably familiar with Sullivan and had reason to expect that this ban would be interpreted in conformity with that precedent," Alito writes.

Tuesday's decisions add momentum to an important trend at the high court toward embracing an expansive approach to the interpretation of civil rights statutes.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in the Jackson case that a girl's high school basketball coach could sue the school board for alleged retaliation against him after he complained that his female players were not receiving equal access to sports equipment and facilities.

He sued under Title IX, which bars gender discrimination in education. Like Section 1981, Title IX does not specifically mention a cause of action for retaliation. Nonetheless, the majority justices found that retaliation was a form of discrimination outlawed under the statute.

The decision was written by then Justice O'Connor. Now, with O'Connor no longer on the court, the justices affirmed the same principle, but this time instead of 5 to 4, the votes were 6 to 3 and 7 to 2.