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Justices Back Workers in Race, Age Discrimination Suits

The high court sided Tuesday with employees -- one at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, one a postal worker -- who sought to file lawsuits after facing retaliation for complaining about race and age discrimination. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal examines the cases.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Now, what happens when an employee claims discrimination and the employer retaliates? Those workplace issues were at the heart of two Supreme Court rulings today, both decided in favor of the employee.

    Here to walk us through them is NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

    And, Marcia, at issue were race-based discrimination and age-based discrimination. Let's take a look at the race-based case first.

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    OK. This case involved the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and a provision in that act that prohibits race discrimination in the making and enforcing of contracts, employment contracts, non-employment contracts.

    The case came before the court arising from a suit brought by Hedrick Humphries, who was an assistant manager at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Illinois. He had received excellent reviews and bonuses for his performance there until a new manager came on board.

    That manager, according to Mr. Humphries, made racially derogatory comments to Mr. Humphries and other African-American employees. He complained. Ultimately, he was fired by this manager.

    The grounds given for the firing was that he left the safe open overnight. He brought his race discrimination suit and a claim for retaliation because he complained of race discrimination.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And today's ruling said what?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    The issue before the court was whether this particular provision of that civil rights law allowed retaliation claims to be brought. The provision said nothing about retaliation.

    Justice Breyer wrote the majority opinion. It was a 7-2 decision, and he said, basically, this decision rested on the court's prior decisions in this area, under laws that were very similar to this that had broad bans on discrimination, but were silent as to whether retaliation was covered.

    He said retaliation is closely related to the enforcement of the underlying right. Here, if you have a right to be free from race discrimination in the making of contracts, what would happen if you couldn't complain about retaliation when you exercised that right? It would be a right without any real remedy.

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