The U.S. Supreme Court justices have given workers more leeway to sue when they face retaliation after complaining about discrimination in the workplace. In two employment cases, one involving race and the other age, the high court took an expansive view of workers’ rights. In doing so, the court avoided the narrow, ideology-based decisions that marked its previous term. The justices construed parts of an 1860s civil rights act and the main anti-age bias law to include the right to sue over reprisals even though neither provision expressly prohibits retaliation. The outcomes in the two cases contrasted with rulings last term in which majorities of the court insisted on literal readings of federal laws over the objections of dissenters who favored more expansive interpretations.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the court in a case involving a black employee at a Cracker Barrel restaurant who was fired, said that previous Supreme Court decisions and congressional action make clear that retaliation is covered. Justice Breyer wrote that a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, known as section 1981, “encompasses retaliation claims” and “is indeed well-embedded in the law.” The Cracker Barrel case grew out of the firing of a black associate manager at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Illinois. The employee contended that he was fired after complaining about race discrimination by other Cracker Barrel supervisors. He filed a lawsuit claiming both discrimination and retaliation. Each claim was dismissed by a federal judge, but only the retaliation claim was appealed. The Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said the employee could pursue his retaliation claim under section 1981. The high court upheld that ruling in the case on appeal.
In the age retaliation case, Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court’s opinion allowing a federal employee to pursue retaliation claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Justice Alito concluded for the court that a U.S. Postal Service employee may pursue that claim in her lawsuit. While the anti-age bias law specifically bars reprisals against private sector employees who complain about discrimination, it is silent as to federal workers. Justice Alito said the law applies to both categories of employees. The case involves a postal worker in Puerto Rico who alleged she was being discriminated against because of her age. The employee, who was then 45, said that after she filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, she suffered a “series of reprisals” from her supervisors. Her suit was filed under the ADEA, claiming retaliation in violation of the law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston upheld a lower court’s dismissal. The Supreme Court reversed that ruling.
The decisions in these two cases relied, in part, on a 2005 ruling that called retaliation another form of intentional, unlawful discrimination under Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education. Title IX, like the two laws at issue, doesn’t explicitly talk about reprisals. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the 5-4 decision in 2005. Interestingly, Justice O’Connor, upon her retirement, was replaced by Justice Alito. That is interesting to say the least when you consider that many court observers have expressed shock at Justice Alito’s stand in the case in which he wrote the majority opinion. I believe it simply means the justice will follow the law and that’s the way it should be.
Source: Associated Press
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