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Rights Act Does Not Apply To Cases Before 1991 Enactment

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Washington

In a victory for employers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 last week that the Civil Rights Act of 1991 does not apply to cases that were pending at the time of its enactment.

The decisions in two related cases, Landgraf v. USI Film Products (Case No. 92-757) and Rivers v. Roadway Express Inc. (No. 92-938), have a potential impact on thousands of job-discrimination cases filed before Nov. 21, 1991, when the new law took effect after several years of contentious debate by Congress.

School-law experts said that a number of such cases would involve schools, colleges, and universities.

School districts "probably have fewer Title VII cases than other employers do, but we do get them,'' said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, referring to the main federal job-discrimination law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Now we know where we stand,'' she said. "We know the date the act passed, and that's when the new obligations'' became effective.

Ms. Gregory said she had recently heard about a discrimination case filed against a school district in which the judge was awaiting the High Court's decision before determining whether the plaintiff would be entitled to a jury trial.

The 1991 federal law significantly expanded the scope of Title VII, allowing plaintiffs to have their cases heard by a jury, and to win monetary damages of as much as $300,000. Before that, only judges could hear such cases, and the only remedies available were injunctions, back pay, and lawyers' fees.

A Political Sacrifice

The 1991 law also authorized suits for damages stemming from unlawful racial discrimination in all phases of employment. The law was written in part to reverse the effects of eight Supreme Court rulings in the late 1980's that had limited the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which guaranteed blacks the same right to enter contracts as whites.

Congress passed a similar civil-rights bill in 1990 that included a statement that the measure would apply to pending cases. President Bush vetoed the bill, citing the retroactivity issue as one reason.

In the effort to pass a compromise bill, the Democratic-controlled Congress agreed to leave the retroactivity provision out of the 1991 bill, leaving it to the courts to decide whether the law would apply to pending cases.

The High Court used the cases of a Texas factory worker who alleged sex discrimination and two Ohio mechanics who alleged racial discrimination to decide that the civil-rights law should not apply retroactively.

If Congress wants a law to apply retroactively, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority in both cases, said, it should explicitly say so in the legislation.

"In a free, dynamic society, creativity in both commercial and artistic endeavors is fostered by a rule of law that gives people confidence about the legal consequences of their actions,'' he wrote in the Landgraf case.

Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun was the lone dissenter, writing in Landgraf that "there is nothing unjust about holding an employer responsible for injuries caused by conduct that has been illegal for almost 30 years.''

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