U.S. Supreme Court OKs reprisal lawsuits

Chris Rizo May 27, 2008, 12:59pm

Stephen Breyer

Clarence Thomas

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two cases Tuesday that an employee who complains of racial bias and then faces retaliation can sue.

The high court ruled 7-2 in the case of Hendrick Humphries, who had been an assistant manager at a Cracker Barrel restaurant from 1999 to 2001 in Bradley, Ill. The restaurant is a unit of CBRL Group Inc., based in Lebanon, Tenn.

Although the company said Humphries was fired because he left the restaurant safe open, Humphries claimed that he was the target of retaliation after he complained to the district manager that the store manager had discriminated against him and another black employee.

His attorneys argued that he was protected by one of the nation's oldest civil rights laws: the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which amended by Congress in 1991.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago found that Humphries could pursue his retaliation claim under the 1866 law. The Supreme Court upheld their ruling.

Humphries' case was supported by the Bush administration, civil rights groups and 14 states. The cases is CROCS West vs. Humphries.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act too prohibits retaliation against employees who complain about discrimination, but unlike the Reconstruction-era statute the law sets time limits and restricts damage awards.

In the court's majority opinion, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said the law, known as Section 1981, encompasses retaliation claims, and "is indeed well embedded in the law."

Dissenting were Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Thomas said the Civil Rights Act limits its scope to discrimination on the basis of race.

"Retaliation is not discrimination based on race," he wrote in his dissenting opinion.

The justices separately voted 6-3 to allow retaliation claims by federal employees who complain of age discrimination.

That decision lets a lawsuit by a U.S. postal employee go forward.

In that case, the justices said federal employees, like those in the private sector, are protected from retaliation in the workplace.

"The key question in this case is whether the statutory phrase 'discrimination based on age' includes retaliation based on the filing of an age discrimination complaint. We hold that it does," Associate Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.

Dissenting in Gomez-Perez vs. Potter were Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Scalia and Thomas.

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the rulings in a statement.

"Today's decisions are appropriately grounded in the realities of the workplace," said Steven Shapiro, national legal director of the ACLU.

"Workers who fear retaliation are far less likely to report discrimination. Congress understood as much when it passed laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on race and age. By acknowledging that fact in its decisions today, the court has protected workers and respected congressional intent," he added.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo by e-mail at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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