Supreme Court Strengthens Anti-Discrimination Legislation
By Gerri Elder
The U.S. Supreme Court has recently made a pair of decisions that will beef up anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. The rulings give employees who say they were punished for complaining of bias on the job the right to file personal injury lawsuits and sue for damages, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
The court found that workers' claims of retaliation by their employers are covered by civil rights laws even though these old laws do not specifically spell out this type of discrimination. These findings were surprising to civil rights and civil liberties advocates because just last year the Supreme Court made a series of rulings in favor of employers that limited the rights of employees.
Since existing civil rights laws already protect workers from retaliation by employers after they complain of bias based on their race, religion, gender, national origin or age, the Supreme Court decisions do not amount to a change of the law. The decisions do give workers more rights under the court's interpretation of the law though, and will enable them to file personal injury lawsuits when they are victims of discrimination.
The Supreme Court's first decision said that the oldest civil rights law in the country gave blacks the same rights as whites to make contracts and protects them from being fired for making complaints about the mistreatment of other black employees. The law was passed just after the Civil War.
Because of the Supreme Court's 7-2 ruling on this law, a former assistant manager of a Cracker Barrel restaurant near Chicago will be allowed to take his personal injury lawsuit to court. The worker alleges that he was fired after he complained about a white supervisor who made racist comments and about the firing of a black food service worker.
The second decision by the Supreme Court concerned age bias against workers. The court found in a 6-3 decision that older federal employees who were punished after complaining of age bias could sue the government for retaliation. Lawyers for the federal government had argued that these workers had no right to file injury lawsuits because they were protected by the civil service system.
This decision by the Supreme Court clears the way for a personal injury lawsuit by a 45-year-old postal clerk from Puerto Rico to go forward.
The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union said that the court rulings were appropriate and realistic for the workplace. Steven R. Shapiro pointed out the obvious, that employees who fear retaliation from their employers are not likely to report workplace discrimination.
Last year the Supreme Court threw out a pay-discrimination lawsuit filed by a female manager in Alabama who had been paid less than men doing the same job. The court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the woman failed to cite recent acts of bias as required by the law. Given that decision, the recent rulings come as a pleasant surprise to civil rights advocates.