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The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled on two cases about retaliation against workers. The court said it is illegal under federal civil rights laws to retaliate against employees who complain about race or age discrimination. In lopsided votes, the justices rejected arguments by business groups that these workers' claims should have been thrown out.
NPR's legal affair correspondent Nina Totenberg has a report.
NINA TOTENBERG: Three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled by a narrow five-to-four majority that a high school basketball coach could sue for retaliation after he was fired for complaining to superiors about unequal facilities for the girl's basketball team.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the court's opinion, but she's now retired and been replaced by a far more conservative justice, Samuel Alito. And so when two new retaliation cases came to the Supreme Court this term, experts saw them as a test of whether the newly constituted court was ready to reverse course on the question of retaliation. The answer today came loud and clear. The court said that retaliation is a form of discrimination, and the Supreme Court has so held not just for three years, but for 40 years. The key language in the two opinions reflected the court's devotion to following precedent and the precedents, the justices said, were clear and longstanding.
The first case today involved a one-time assistant manager at a Cracker Barrel store in Chicago, who claimed that he was fired when he complained of racist remarks and actions taken by a new boss. The man sued, representing himself under an important statute that bars discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts. That law has always been a mainstay of civil rights law. And when the Supreme Court limited its reach in 1989, Congress nullified the court's ruling by amending the law to broaden its protections. When the Cracker Barrel case reached the Supreme Court, though, the company, backed by the business community, argued that the law still did not specifically authorize claims for retaliation. Today, the Supreme Court rejected that argument by a seven-to-two vote.
Writing for the court majority, Justice Stephen Breyer pointed to the court's 1969 ruling declaring that retaliation was grounds for suit. He pointed to the court's similar ruling three years ago, and he pointed to Congress's broad language in 1991, language aimed at restoring what had previously been the status quo. Dissenting from the decision were justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.
The court's second retaliation case today involved a postal worker in Puerto Rico, who claimed she was harassed in retaliation for filing an age- discrimination suit. This time, the vote was six to three, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the dissenters because he said the age-discrimination law specifically authorizes retaliation claims against private-sector employers but is silent as to public employers. The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, said that regardless of that silence, the Supreme Court's past decisions clearly consider retaliation to be a form of discrimination. The Alito opinion was something of a surprise. He was the author last term of an opinion in a case called Ledbetter that dramatically limited back pay in discrimination cases, a decision that was widely denounced by critics.
Robin Conrad, vice president of the National Chamber of Commerce Litigation Center, said today's decision may be something of a reaction.
Ms. ROBIN CONRAD (Vice President, National Chamber of Commerce Litigation Center): I think the court may have been stung by the almost immediate introduction of many bills in Congress to overturn the Ledbetter decision.
TOTENBERG: But Michael Foreman of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said the court is sending a message about stability in the law.
Mr. MICHAEL FOREMAN (Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law): We're not going to revisit 20 years, 30, 40 years of precedent on this particular issue.
TOTENBERG: Business leaders worry that today's ruling might inspire more retaliation lawsuits. But the court, in its opinion, noted that with only one exception, the lower appellate courts have long followed the same principles that were enunciated in today's rulings. Attorney Paul Mollica writes a blog that follows employment law in the appellate courts. As he puts it, the lower courts have repeatedly held that retaliation claims are essential enforcement tools for the nation's civil rights laws because...
Mr. PAUL MOLLICA (Attorney): Without the backstop of a protection against retaliation, employees are significantly deterred from complaining about discrimination
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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