Retaliation Case Reaches Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday in a case testing whether workers who claim they are fired for complaining about racial discrimination may sue for damages under a key civil rights statute.

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Today, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case involving workers who say they were fired because they complained about racial discrimination. The question is whether they may sue for damages under a key civil rights statute. The case is one of three retaliation claims the court has agreed to hear, and we have more this morning from NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled by a narrow five-to-four vote that a public high school coach could sue for retaliation after he was fired for complaining to superiors about unequal facilities for the girl's basketball team. If retaliation claims were not permitted, the court said, the federal law barring gender discrimination in athletics at publicly funded schools would unravel, because teachers and coaches would be intimidated into silence and discrimination would be allowed to fester.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the court's opinion, but she has now retired and been replaced by a far more conservative justice, Samuel Alito. And so experts see the state of retaliation appeals the justices have agreed to hear as a test of whether the newly constituted court is ready to reverse course and undermine retaliation claims in other areas, like employment law.

At issue before the court today is an appeal brought by Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, a chain of 570 gift shops and restaurants. In 2004, the Justice Department sued the chain, alleging a pattern of discriminatory practices against customers. The chain, without admitting wrongdoing, settled the suit and agreed to a tough monitoring program in customer services.

Today's case involved not customer services, but employment practices. An assistant manager at a Cracker Barrel store in Chicago claims he was fired after complaining about what he saw as the racially discriminatory firing of a long-time employee and about racially abusive remarks by a boss.

The central figure in the suit, Rick Humphries, had high marks as an assistant manager for over two years. But when his boss left for another job, Humphries complained that the new boss made racist remarks, including one…

Mr. RICK HUMPHRIES (Assistant Manager, Cracker Barrel): …about wanting to put on a white sheet and a hood to scare off minority candidates for employment.

TOTENBERG: When Humphries complained to higher ups, he says he began to get bad ratings and reports. And when he intervened to protest the firing of a black food server with a long and stellar record at the company, things got worse. He was fired on what he calls a false charge, that he'd left a safe open.

Humphries sued Cracker Barrel for racial discrimination, representing himself. Because of a procedural error on one part of his initial filing, his only claim was one brought under and important statute that bars discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts. The law has always been a mainstay of civil rights law, and in 1991, after the Supreme Court limited its reach, Congress, in essence, reversed the court's ruling by amending the law to broaden its protections.

The question before the court today is whether that law, as amended in 1991, includes a protection against retaliation based on race. Cracker Barrel asserts that the law that's at issue in this case does not cover retaliation claims.

Michael Hawkins represents the company.

Mr. MICHAEL HAWKINS (Cracker Barrel): The law does not provide for a cause of action for retaliation. It is not in the statute.

TOTENBERG: But Humphries' lawyer, Cynthia Hyndman, counters that the law clearly expands protection for workers in the making and enforcement of contracts to include anything discriminatory that happens on the job.

Ms. CYNTHIA HYNDMAN (Attorney): Congress said we intend to have this cover the entire contractual relationship and any kind of cause of action you could bring for harassment, failure to promote, termination and retaliation.

TOTENBERG: The Bush administration supports that argument. Solicitor General Paul Clement will tell the justices today that Congress, in barring all impairment by discrimination, meant to outlaw all forms of discrimination in employment and to authorize the victims of retaliation to sue for damages. Now the Supreme Court will decide.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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