Supreme Court's Rulings Protect Workers from Employer Retaliation

The Supreme Court this week handed down a pair of rulings upholding the rights of employees who charge age and race discrimination, forbidding employers from retaliating when workers complain about such discrimination. In the age case, Gomez-Perez v. Potter, the court ruled for Myrna Gomez-Perez, a U.S. Postal Service worker who alleged that she was subjected to retaliation, including having her supervisor make accusations against her, after filing an age-discrimination complaint. The Postal Service argued that the age-discrimination law covering federal workers did not prohibit retaliation, but the court concluded, in a 6-to-3 vote, that Congress intended to protect workers in such positions as Gomez-Perez from retaliation.

In the race case, CBOCS West Inc. v. Humphries, the court ruled 7 to 2 in favor of Hedrick Humphries, a black employee of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Humphries said he was dismissed for complaining to managers when another black worker was fired, allegedly for race-based reasons. The issue was whether a post-Civil War-era law he sued under, widely known as Section 1981, bars retaliation. The court's majority relied on a previous decision holding that a similar statute covers retaliation claims.

Although the statutes involved in the two cases did not expressly provide for retaliation claims, the court recognized in both decisions handed down May 27 that protection against retaliation is essential to the vigorous enforcement of the nation's civil rights laws. The court also noted that its decisions were consistent with a long line of prior decisions interpreting other, related civil rights statutes. Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the decisions "are appropriately grounded in the realities of the workplace. 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 [Tuesday], the court has protected workers and respected congressional intent."

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