Law & Courts

Supreme Court Bolsters Workers’ Job Protections

By Mark Walsh — May 29, 2008 3 min read
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In a decision that potentially expands the job protections of public school employees, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a Reconstruction-era civil rights law protects workers against retaliatory conduct.

The May 27 decision came in the case of a former Cracker Barrel restaurant manager who alleged that he faced retaliation for complaining about race discrimination against a fellow employee.

The justices ruled 7-2 in CBOCS West v. Humphries (Case No. 06-1431) that the law commonly known as Section 1981, which derives from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, encompasses retaliation even though that word isn’t mentioned in the statute. Section 1981 bars discrimination based on race in the making and enforcement of contracts, an area that covers employment relationships as well as other aspects of conduct.

In the employment sphere, Section 1981 is often viewed as providing overlapping protection with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars job discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. But as the case of Hedrick G. Humphries shows, the older civil rights law can provide an extra layer of protection compared with Title VII, which has a complex set of deadlines and paperwork requirements.

A federal appeals court ruled that Mr. Humphries had failed to meet Title VII’s deadlines on his claim of direct discrimination, but it upheld his claim of retaliation under Section 1981.

See Also

For more stories on this topic see Law and Courts, Testing and Accountability, and Teachers.

The Supreme Court majority said that history and recent precedents supported such claims.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen G. Breyer pointed to a 2005 high court decision that interpreted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, as also covering retaliation even though the statute doesn’t expressly mention it.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

The decision may not have a dramatic impact in public education because Title VII is cited far more widely in discrimination claims against school employers, legal experts said.

Section 1981’s protections extend beyond the workplace, and the law was the basis for a landmark Supreme Court decision on race discrimination in private education. In a 1976 case known as Runyon v. McCrary,, the court held that Section 1981 prohibits nonreligious private schools that advertise to the general public from denying admission to black students. The court did not decide whether the law would apply to schools that professed religious reasons for such decisions, and it has not confronted that issue since.

Teacher-Testing Case

Meanwhile, in a job-discrimination case that comes directly out of public education, the Department of Justice is urging the Supreme Court not to take up a case that contends that a state teachers’ exam has a racially disparate impact on minority teachers in the New York City school system.

A group of black and Latino teachers sued New York state and its largest school system in 1996. The plaintiffs alleged that two teacher tests required by the state had a disparate impact on African-American and Latino test-takers, and that those in the city system who failed to pass the test were demoted to substitute-teacher status, for which they received less pay and reduced benefits.

A federal district judge upheld the use of the state-developed teacher test, but in a 2006 decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, partially revived the teachers’ lawsuit. The appellate court ordered the lower court to reconsider whether the New York City school system was potentially liable under Title VII for the disparate impact of the state’s test on black and Latino teachers.

The New York City school system appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court. In December, the justices asked for the federal government’s views. (“Court Seeks Justice Dept.’s Views in Case Over N.Y. Teacher Test,” Dec. 12, 2007.)

In a brief filed May 23 in Board of Education of New York City v. Gulino (No. 07-270), U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement said the 2nd Circuit court incorrectly ruled that the district may be liable for the impact of the state’s test.

The New York City system “is not liable under Title VII for complying with a facially neutral state licensing regime that limits the universe of potential employees to those who have complied with the state’s requirement,” the brief said.

Nevertheless, the solicitor general said, the high court should not grant review of the case because it would make a poor vehicle for deciding the issue. The 2nd Circuit opinion does not conflict with any other federal appeals courts on that issue, the brief said.

The justices will likely decide soon whether to heed the solicitor general’s recommendation.

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2008 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court Bolsters Workers’ Job Protections


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