WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court said yesterday that workers who claim they faced retaliation for complaining of racial or age discrimination may sue in federal court, and it made clear that federal employees enjoy the same protection as their counterparts in the private sector.
In a pair of decisions that drew support from both liberal and conservative justices, the court said its past decisions compelled the view that federal laws that protect workers from discrimination also protect them from retaliation for filing complaints, even if the words of the statute do not specifically say so.
"It's a huge victory for federal workers, who will enjoy the same protection from retaliation that private-sector employees receive," said Joseph Guerra, who argued the age case for postal worker Myrna Gomez-Perez. He said more than one million federal workers were covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
More broadly, the court's decisions brought grudging praise from civil-rights groups that had complained about the court's overwhelmingly pro-business rulings last term, and brought concern from industry groups.
The liberal People for the American Way said the rulings were "welcome exceptions" to what it called a trend of the court's conservative justices to "undercut the rights of everyday Americans and protect powerful business and government interests."
The National Federation of Independent Businesses, however, called the decisions "extremely disappointing for the small business community."
CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries
, the justices ruled 7-2 that an 1866 civil-rights law gave a fired African American worker at Cracker Barrel the right to pursue his claim of retaliation. Only the court's two most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, dissented.
Gomez-Perez v. Potter
, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the 6-3 opinion that federal workers were protected from retaliation under the ADEA, a law Congress approved in 1967. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined Thomas and Scalia in dissent.
Robin Conrad, executive vice president for the litigation arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said she wondered whether the court was suffering the "sting of the Ledbetter decision." She was referring to the public criticism and congressional action that resulted from last year's 5-4 decision in which the court's strict reading of federal laws kept a longtime Goodyear Tire & Rubber employee, Lilly Ledbetter, from suing the company for pay discrimination.
In yesterday's cases, the court stood by prior rulings that said legal protection against discrimination carried an implied right to sue for retaliation. Both decisions referred to a 1969 precedent as well as a 2005 decision written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whom Alito succeeded in 2006.
Business groups had hoped the court's decision to accept the CBOCS case meant it was ready to review those rulings.
The lawsuit stemmed from the 2001 firing of Hedrick G. Humphries, a black assistant manager of a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Bradley, Ill. He contended he was dismissed after complaining about discriminatory remarks by a supervisor and about the firing of a black waitress for offenses that were tolerated from whites. Soon after Humphries complained to a district manager, a supervisor alleged that he had left a restaurant safe unlocked overnight and fired him.
Among other claims, Humphries said that his dismissal violated provisions of the Reconstruction-era Civil Rights Act of 1866.
In yesterday's opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the court agreed. Even though reprisals are not specifically addressed in the law, the idea that the act "encompasses retaliation claims is indeed well-embedded," Breyer wrote.
Thomas, joined by Scalia, wrote that the court's view "has no basis in the text" of the statute and that retaliation was not the same thing as "discrimination based on race."
In the age case, Gomez-Perez, a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service in Puerto Rico, said that after she filed an age-discrimination complaint against the postal service - she was 45 - she was subjected to various forms of retaliation, including false accusations of sexual harassment and drastically reduced work hours.
The ADEA prohibits retaliation against private-sector employees but does not specifically mention such a ban with respect to federal workers.
But Alito wrote that the phrase
discrimination based on age
in the federal-sector provision of the ADEA "includes retaliation based on the filing of an age discrimination complaint."
Echoing Breyer in the other case, he wrote: "We are guided by our prior decisions interpreting similar language in other anti-discrimination statutes."
Roberts disagreed in the Gomez-Perez case. He said that Congress protected federal workers through the civil-service process and "did not intend those employees to have a separate judicial remedy for retaliation."
Retaliation complaints are a growing subset of workplace discrimination cases, the New York Times reported. It said retaliation complaints filed annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled in the last 15 years, from 11,000 to 22,000.
Read the rulings in the age- discrimination case via
and in the race- discrimination case via