The United States Supreme Court has recently issued a number of very employee-friendly
employment discrimination decisions. In this post and our next few posts,
we will discuss these important employment discrimination decisions.
In the first case,
CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, the Court addressed the issue of whether 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Section
1981) permits actions for retaliatory discharge. Section 1981 is a Civil
War-era federal civil rights law that gives “all persons within
the jurisdiction of the United States . . . the same right . . . to make
and enforce contracts . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens.” Plaintiffs
often choose to file race discrimination claims under Section 1981 in
addition to Title VII claims because there is no requirement to first
file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, Section 1981’s statue
of limitations is much longer than Title VII’s 180-day limitations
period, and Section 1981 has no cap on damages. However, unlike Title
VII, Section 1981 does not contain language prohibiting retaliation, and
many courts have therefore held that retaliation claims are not available
under the statute.
In the case, Hedrick Humphries was an African-American manager of a Cracker
Barrel restaurant who claimed he was discharged because of his race and
because he had complained that another African-American employee had been
discriminated against because of his race. Accordingly, he brought suit
under both Title VII and Section 1981. The lower court dismissed Humphries’
Title VII claim on procedural grounds and granted Cracker Barrel’s
motion for summary judgment on Humphries’ Section 1981 claim, holding
that retaliation claims are not available under the statute.
On appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, although the Seventh
Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Humphries’
Title VII claim, it reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Humphries’
Section 1981 claim, holding that Section 1981 encompasses claims for retaliation
even though the statute is absolutely silent on this issue.
Cracker Barrel then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that because
the language of Section 1981 does not prohibit retaliation claims, there
is no principled basis for reading such a provision into the statute.
In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court rejected Cracker Barrel’s arguments
and affirmed the Seventh Circuit, holding that Section 1981 encompasses
retaliation claims. In so holding, the Court relied on several of its
previous decisions interpreting other civil rights statutes in which it
held that such statutes encompassed retaliation claims even though they
did not contain anti-retaliation language in the statutory texts.
Humphries is a powerful decision in that a significant majority of the Court read
an implied right into a statute that contains no such express right (a
point which Justices Scalia and Thomas in their dissenting opinion take
pains to point out). The decision further highlights the importance of
retaliation as a powerful cause of action in the employment discrimination context.
Stay tuned for our continuing Supreme Court wrap-up!