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Pair of Supreme Court Rulings Sustains Workers’ Retaliation Claims

May 28, 2008

On May 27, 2008 the United States Supreme Court issued two decisions in favor of workers who faced retaliation after complaining of employer discrimination based on their race and age.  Neither of the two federal statutes at issue expressly prohibit the retaliation alleged by the plaintiff employees.  Nonetheless, the Supreme Court concluded in both cases that previous decisions, as well as legislative history of the statutes in question, make it clear that the retaliation alleged by the plaintiffs is covered under these laws.

By a 7-2 vote, the Court sustained a race discrimination and retaliation case filed by Hedrick Humphries, a black associate manager at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, who was fired after he complained of racially discriminatory treatment by his supervisors.  In an opinion written by Justice Breyer, the Court ruled that Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Civil War-era law that bars discrimination in private contracts, prohibits retaliation for a complaint of discrimination based on race.  CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, No. 06-1431.

Humphries filed a lawsuit claiming both discrimination and retaliation under Section 1981 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and both claims were dismissed.  With the Title VII claims dismissed as untimely, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit heard an appeal only on the Section 1981 retaliation claim, and ruled that Humphries could pursue his retaliation claim under Section 1981.  In its recent decision, the Supreme Court affirmed.  While most federal Circuits had already ruled that Section 1981 suits were allowed for retaliation, the law may receive more attention now that the Supreme Court has addressed the issue.  This is of significance to employers because Section 1981 has a longer statute of limitations than Title VII and, unlike Title VII, does not contain limits on damages nor require that administrative complaints first be filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”).

The second case, Gomez-Perez v. Potter (No. 06-1321), involved an age discrimination claim filed by Myrna Gomez-Perez, a postal worker in Puerto Rico.  After she filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC, claiming discrimination based on her age, Ms. Gomez-Perez sued under the section of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the “ADEA”) that covers federal employees, claiming that her supervisors retaliated against her in response to her EEOC Charge.

The ADEA protects employees in the private sector from retaliation after complaining about discrimination, but does not expressly offer such protection for employees of the federal government.  Despite assertions by the Bush Administration that Congress would have included in the law an express provision had it actually intended the prohibition on retaliation to cover federal employees, the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Alito, held that federal employees are also afforded protection from retaliation under the ADEA.  This ruling overturned a dismissal by the lower court, which was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

These decisions, particularly the Humphries case, highlight the danger of retaliation claims by employees who have previously asserted claims of discrimination.  Whenever an employee lodges a discrimination complaint — even one which the employer believes to be without merit — the complaint should be investigated promptly and addressed in an appropriate manner as the facts and circumstances dictate.  And if the complainant later engages in unsatisfactory work performance or other conduct that calls for discipline, the employer should proceed with caution.