Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Supreme Court issues 2 decisions expanding scope of retaliation claims

Last December, I asked the question, "How far to the right has the Supreme Court swung?" This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued 2 decisions that suggest that it might not have gone as far to the right as first thought. Each of today's cases expands the scope of retaliation claims under federal employment discrimination statutes. In each case, the Court went beyond the plain language of the statutes to find a retaliation claim.

In CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, the Court ruled 7-2 (with Justices Thomas and Scalia dissenting) that 42 U.S.C. 1981 permits a claim for retaliation when an employee complains of race discrimination.

In Gomez-Perez v. Potter, the Court ruled 6-3 (with Chief Justice Roberts, and again, Justices Thomas and Scalia, dissenting) that the ADEA prohibits federal employers, as opposed to private employers, from retaliating against employees who file complaints alleging age discrimination.

What is interesting about both of these decisions is that neither section 1981 nor the amendments to the ADEA that impose federal sector liability include the word "retaliate." Nevertheless, the Court has read that word into the meaning of the statutes by finding that "discrimination based on race/age" necessarily encompasses retaliation.

These opinions will have little impact on employers in Ohio. Unless you are the federal government, Gomez-Perez v. Potter will not affect you at all.

CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries will have limited practical impact for Ohio employers. Because of this case, it is now clear that an employee can bring a race retaliation claim without first filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC under Title VII. Of course, this is already the case in Ohio under R.C. 4112.99. Moreover, claims under 42 U.S.C. 1981 are subject to a 4-year statute of limitations, 2 years shorter than the time period an employee has to bring a state law retaliation claim under 4112.99.

What is important to Ohio businesses from these cases is that they continue to demonstrate that the Roberts Court may not be as pro-employer as one might have hoped. Under Chief Justice Roberts, pro-employee decisions are out-pacing pro-employer decisions at a 2-1 clip. Several more employment cases are on the Court's docket, including the important issue of whether Title VII's retaliation provision protects 3rd parties who participate in an internal investigation without a pending EEOC charge. The direction of the Court's employment law pendulum is very much in play, and will continue to swing as these decisions are handed down.

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