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The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that two federal laws protect employees who complain of race discrimination and age discrimination from retaliation by their employers.

            In a 7-2 opinion the Court held that an employee who complained of race discrimination was protected from retaliation by section 1981 of the U.S. Code.  In the case, CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, a former assistant manager at Cracker Barrel complained that he was being subjected to race discrimination.  After the complaint his employer fired him.  He sued under Title VII and section 1981, claiming racial discrimination and retaliation. 

            Title VII is the more commonly known federal civil rights law that protects employees from racial discrimination.  The lesser known section 1981, passed shortly after the Civil War ended, also prohibits a private or public employer from engaging in racial discrimination against employees.  The question before the Court was whether or not section 1981 also protected the employee from retaliation after he complained of race discrimination. 

            The Court held section 1981 does prohibit retaliation.  This is an important victory for employees.  Title VII has a cap on compensatory and punitive damages and provides only a narrow window to complain about discrimination, usually 180-300 days.  However, Section 1981 does not cap compensatory and punitive damages and has a four-year window to bring complaints of discrimination.  For an employee suffering race discrimination that larger window can mean the difference between walking into court and having the courtroom doors slammed shut. 

            The second case asked whether or not the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) protected federal employees who complain of age discrimination from retaliation by their employers.  In a 6-3 decision the Court answered yes, the ADEA prohibits a federal agency from retaliating against employees who complain of age discrimination.

            The case, Gomez-Perez v. Potter, involved a U.S. Post Office employee who claimed she was discriminated against by her manager because of her age.  After she complained, she was denied a transfer request and suffered other adverse employment actions.  She filed suit claiming illegal age discrimination and retaliation but the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit dismissed her claim, holding that the ADEA did not give federal employees a claim for retaliation.  The Supreme Court disagreed, and now federal employees have the same protections against retaliation that private sector employees possess.    

            The two cases are significant victories for employees.  They give greater protections to employees who complain of discrimination and provide additional penalties to employers who retaliate against employees.  Equally as important, they demonstrate the Robert Court’s willingness to protect employees from employers who feel the need to retaliate against individuals who stand up for their civil rights.  The deck is still stacked against employees.  But employees now have a much stronger hand to play.            

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