Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Some Good News, For A Change

Will wonders never cease: the US Supreme Court handed down two decisions on workplace discrimination yesterday and got both decisions right. Not only that, but the decisions were not 5-4 squeakers. One was decided 7-2 and the other 6-3. From the NY Times:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that employees are protected from retaliation when they complain about discrimination in the workplace, adopting a broad interpretation of workers’ rights under two federal civil rights laws.

By decisions of 7 to 2 in one case and 6 to 3 in the other, the court found that the two statutes afford protection from retaliation even though Congress did not explicitly say so.

The decisions are significant both as a practical matter and as evidence of a new tone and direction from the court this year, following a term in which there were sharp divisions and an abrupt conservative turn.

In both cases, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, which comes as no surprise. However, this time around, Justice Samuel Alito, joined the majority in both cases, and wrote the majority opinion in one. Last year, he wrote the majority opinion in the Ledbetter v Goodyear case in which tight time limits were placed on plaintiffs seeking to file pay-discrimination cases, thereby making it much more difficult for workers to get such cases heard. Chief Justice Roberts, voted with the majority in one case, but dissented in the other.

Each of the two cases involved retaliation for reporting discrimination, so the decisions are significant. Retaliation is usually much easier to prove than the underlying discrimination. Interestingly, one case involved age discrimination (the other racial discrimination), so elder law has been given a boost by this Court.

One of the cases began as a lawsuit by a clerk for the United States Postal Service in Puerto Rico. The plaintiff, Myrna Gómez-Pérez, 45 at the time, complained that she had been denied a transfer to a different office because of age discrimination. Her lawsuit alleged that as a result of her complaint, she became the target of retaliatory actions by her supervisors.

The other case was brought by a former assistant manager of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, a black man named Hedrick G. Humphries. Mr. Humphries had complained that a white assistant manager had been motivated by racial discrimination in dismissing a black employee. In his lawsuit, Mr. Humphries claimed that he then lost his own job in retaliation for his complaint.

All in all, not a bad day at the highest court in the land.

May they continue.

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