WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday strengthened civil-rights laws that protect workers from discrimination, ruling that employees who say they were retaliated against after complaining of bias can sue for damages.
In a pair of decisions, the court concluded that claims of retaliation are covered by long-standing civil-rights laws, even though this kind of discrimination was not mentioned specifically in the law’s text.
In the first case, the court based its 7-2 ruling on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, upholding a discrimination claim filed by Hedrick Humphries, a black former assistant manager of a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Bradley, Ill., who alleged that he was fired after complaining about a white manager’s treatment of another black employee.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented. “Retaliation is not discrimination based on race,” Thomas wrote. “The injury he suffers is not on account of his race; rather, it is the result of his conduct.”
In the second, the court based its 6-3 decision on anti-age discrimination laws on the books for more than 30 years, saying federal employees, like those in the private sector, are protected from retaliation. In so doing, the court restored an age-bias suit filed by a 45-year veteran of the Postal Service who alleged that she was harassed by her supervisors after she had filed an age discrimination complaint.
“The key question in this case is whether the statutory phrase ‘discrimination based on age’ includes retaliation based on the filing of an age discrimination complaint. We hold that it does,” Justice Samuel Alito said.
Chief Justice John Roberts dissented, along with Scalia and Thomas. Roberts said the federal civil service rules protect federal workers from retaliation, and therefore the anti-age bias law should not be stretched to include these claims as well.