On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in CBOCS West Inc. v. Humphries, which asks whether an employee bringing a claim for retaliation stemming from a complaint of racial discrimination can file under 42 U.S.C. § 1981.
Enacted as part of the post-Civil War Civil Rights Act of 1866, Section 1981 requires that all people, regardless of race, have equal rights "to make and enforce contracts." The Civil Rights of 1991 affirmed the right of employees to sue under Section 1981 for employment discrimination. While Section 1981 only speaks of "race", courts have interpreted that term to also include ethnicity.
There are key differences between Title VII and Section 1981, which makes the outcome of this case important. First, Title VII requires an EEOC charge and a right to sue letter, while Section 1981 does not. Also, Title VII has a short limitations period, while one has 4 years to file under Section 1981. Finally, Title VII's damage caps do not carry over to Section 1981.
Humphries was an African-American manager at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, owned by CBOCS West. He alleged that he was fired because he complained about his supervisor's racially discriminatory behavior. The trial court dismissed his Title VII claims for procedural deficiencies, but the 7th Circuit permitted his claim to proceed under Section 1981, holding that it authorizes suits where employers retaliate against employees complaining of racial discrimination.
CBOCS West argues that if Congress intended Section 1981 to include retaliation claims, it would have specifically said so as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Under a plain reading of the statute, conduct is not unlawful under Section 1981 unless it is racially motivated. Because Retaliation is motivated by the employee's protected activity, and not the employee's race, it is not covered under Section 1981. CBOCS also argues that permitting retaliation claims under Section 1981 would undermine the EEOC's conciliation and mediation process and Title VII's statute of limitations.
Humphries, on the other hand, argues that retaliation claims are universally permitted under other companion provisions to Section 1981, and that the legislative history to the Civil Right Act of 1991 indicates that Congress intended for Section 1981 to cover "harassment, discharge, demotion, promotion, transfer, retaliation, and hiring."
Given that this case will hinge on statutory interpretation, some combination of Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas will dissent in favor of a reversal. Ultimately, however, a majority of the Court will probably find that Section 1981 allows for retaliation claims. More on this case after the argument on Wednesday.