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Court Okays Suit on retaliation in race, age

Date Posted to Site: 05/27/2008

WASHINGTON  In two significant victories for workers, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that federal laws protect individuals who face retaliation after they have complained about age and race bias on the job.
By 6-3 and 7-2 votes, the majority emphasized that it was adhering to past decisions that had interpreted civil rights laws to cover retaliation even when the statutes at issue did not spell out coverage for demotions, firings or other such adverse actions.

One of Tuesday's cases was brought by a black Cracker Barrel restaurant worker who was fired after complaining about a manager's racially derogatory remarks.

He sued under a post-Civil War law known as Section 1981 that was intended to give blacks the same right to contract as whites.

The other case was brought by a U.S. Postal Service worker who sued for retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. She claimed she had been harassed after filing an age-bias complaint.

The key question in both disputes was whether the statutes specifically covering discrimination  race or age  covered related retaliatory actions.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had observed during oral arguments in the disputes earlier this year that retaliatory actions often follow discrimination claims.

Lawyers for Cracker Barrel and employer groups that had joined in the cases had argued that companies should not be liable for actions not specifically outlawed by the words of a statute.

While the cases were not considered among the most momentous of the term, they were being closely watched because the court under Chief Justice John Roberts had previously narrowly interpreted anti-bias law.

Further, during oral arguments, several justices, including Roberts, had suggested the court should stop reading into bias laws protections that Congress did not specifically write in.

In Tuesday's ruling in the Cracker Barrel case, however, Justice Stephen Breyer noted that key cases from 1969 and 2005 were part of a pattern of more generous interpretations of civil rights law.

Breyer said there is a "considerable burden upon those who would seek a different interpretation that would necessarily unsettle many court precedents."

Dissenting in that case, CBOCS West v. Humphries, were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. They said the court's decision had no basis in the text of Section 1981.

In the age discrimination dispute, Gomez-Perez v. Potter, Justice Samuel Alito also relied on the 1969 and 2005 retaliation-related cases.

Alito said that statutory language at issue in those two cases was not "materially different" from the wording of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

"Following the reasoning of (the earlier cases), we interpret the (ADEA provision covering federal workers) as likewise proscribing retaliation," the ruling said.

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Scalia and Thomas, dissented in that case: "Protection against discrimination may include protection against retaliation for complaining about discrimination, but that is not always the case."

Roberts said the ADEA provision should be interpreted differently from the earlier laws and from Section 1981, at issue in the Cracker Barrel dispute.

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