Anti-Bias Laws Cover Retaliation Claims, U.S. Supreme Court Rules

May 27, 2008

Employees who complain of racial bias in the workplace and then face retaliation can sue under a post-Civil War-era law barring discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In a second similar decision, the high court ruled that a provision of the federal law barring age discrimination prohibits retaliation against a federal government employee who complains of bias.

Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union hailed both rulings, saying, “Today’s decisions are appropriately grounded in the realities of the workplace. The court has protected workers and respected congressional intent.”

In the first case, the high court by a 7-2 vote handed a sweeping victory to Hendrick Humphries, who had been an associate manager at a Cracker Barrel restaurant from 1999 to 2001 in Bradley, Illinois.

Humphries claimed under the law that he had been retaliated against because he complained to the district manager that the store manager had discriminated against him and another black employee.

The federal law at issue in the case was originally part of the Reconstruction-era Civil Rights Act of 1866 and was amended by Congress in 1991.

One of the nation’s oldest civil rights laws, it was enacted to ensure former slaves and other blacks had the same right to make contracts as whites.

While the law does not specifically mention retaliation, several U.S. appeals courts, including the one in the Humphries case, have interpreted it to cover retaliatory firings. The Supreme Court upheld the appeals court’s decision.

Business groups supported the owner of the Cracker Barrel restaurant while civil rights groups, members of Congress, 14 states and the Bush administration all supported Humphries and said the law applied to retaliation.

A different law, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, has employment-related provisions that prohibit retaliation against employees who complain about discrimination.

But unlike the older law, the 1964 law places strict time limits on the filing of such claims and restricts the amount of damages that can be awarded.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said the court’s past precedents require the finding that the law encompasses retaliation claims.

The company’s arguments cannot justify a departure from the well-settled interpretation of the law, he said. Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented.

In the other case involving federal employees, the majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito said the court followed the reasoning of two prior rulings that retaliation is covered by similar language in other anti-discrimination laws.

The ruling was a victory for Myrna Gomez-Perez, a U.S. Postal Service clerk in Puerto Rico. She filed an age discrimination complaint after being denied a transfer to a job she had previously held. She then said she was subjected to various forms of retaliation.

The Supreme Court overturned a federal appeals court ruling that found the law does not extend to retaliation claims.

Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, dissented. Robert said Congress in adopting the age bias law did not implicitly intend to create a judicial remedy for retaliation against federal employees when it expressly did so for private-sector workers.

(Editing by David Alexander and Bill Trott)

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