By decisions of 7 to 2 in one case and 6 to 3 in the other, the court found that the two statutes afford protection from retaliation even though Congress did not explicitly say so.
The decisions are significant both as a practical matter and as evidence of a new tone and direction from the court this year, following a term in which there were sharp divisions and an abrupt conservative turn.
The new rulings were in distinct contrast to one of the signature decisions of the last term, a 5-to-4 decision that placed tight time limits on plaintiffs seeking to file pay-discrimination cases. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who wrote the majority opinion almost exactly a year ago in that case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, wrote one of the two majority opinions on Tuesday. Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the other.
One of the cases began as a lawsuit by a clerk for the United States Postal Service in Puerto Rico. The plaintiff, Myrna Gómez-Pérez, 45 at the time, complained that she had been denied a transfer to a different office because of age discrimination. Her lawsuit alleged that as a result of her complaint, she became the target of retaliatory actions by her supervisors.
The other case was brought by a former assistant manager of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, a black man named Hedrick G. Humphries. Mr. Humphries had complained that a white assistant manager had been motivated by racial discrimination in dismissing a black employee. In his lawsuit, Mr. Humphries claimed that he then lost his own job in retaliation for his complaint.
Retaliation complaints are a growing subset of workplace discrimination cases, because it is often easier for employees to demonstrate that they were retaliated against than that they were victims of discrimination in the first place. Retaliation complaints filed annually with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled in the last 15 years to 22,000 from 11,000.
Congress has provided explicit protection against retaliation in two major federal statutes. One is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race and sex. The other is the provision of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that applies in the private sector.
However, there is no such explicit protection in the portion of the age-discrimination law that applies to federal government workers. Nor is there explicit language in a post-Civil War-era statute that gives “all persons” the same right “as is enjoyed by white citizens” when it comes to making and enforcing contracts, such as contracts of employment. Those were the two statutes that the court interpreted on Tuesday.
In both decisions, the majority relied heavily on precedent, reasoning by analogy from recent cases that dealt with claims of retaliation under other statutes. The most recent such case was a ruling issued in 2005, before either Justice Alito or Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the court. By a vote of 5 to 4, the court held then that a law known as Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in schools and colleges that receive federal money, also prohibits school officials from retaliating against those who bring sex-discrimination complaints. The statute itself does not mention retaliation.
In his opinion on Tuesday in the federal age-discrimination case, Justice Alito said that the provision in question, broadly prohibiting “discrimination based on age,” was “not materially different” from the anti-discrimination language the court had interpreted both in the Title IX case and in an earlier decision from 1969, interpreting a Reconstruction-era statute that bars racial discrimination in property ownership.
“The context in which the statutory language appears is the same in all three cases,” Justice Alito said. “That is, all three cases involve remedial provisions aimed at prohibiting discrimination.”
In the Postal Service case, Gómez-Pérez v. Potter, No. 06-1321, the federal appeals court in Boston, which has jurisdiction over federal cases from Puerto Rico, dismissed the suit on the ground that the age-discrimination provision that applies to federal workers does not cover retaliation claims.
In his opinion, which overturned the appeals court and reinstated the lawsuit, Justice Alito said that understood in the context of its enactment, the provision did cover retaliation. He noted that while the basic age-discrimination law was passed in 1967, it was not extended to federal workers until 1974.
In the interval, the Supreme Court had issued its decision deeming that the 19th-century property-rights law covered retaliation. Congress was “presumably familiar” with that case, Justice Alito said, and “had reason to expect” that the new age-discrimination provision would be interpreted with similar breadth.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts said that, to the contrary, Congress was “well aware” that the Civil Service Commission had issued detailed regulations protecting federal employees against retaliation. The chief justice said that Congress should be understood to have made a judgment that retaliation problems in the federal work force should be dealt with administratively rather than judicially.
These two justices were the only dissenters in Mr. Humphries’s case, CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, No. 06-1431, which held that Congress intended to cover retaliation claims brought under the provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that is usually referred to as Section 1981. The court upheld a ruling by the federal appeals court in Chicago, rejecting an appeal brought by the company that operates the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain.
The Supreme Court’s decision last September to hear the company’s appeal was a surprise, because all the federal appeals courts that had weighed in on the question interpreted Section 1981 as covering retaliation. Resolving disputes among the lower federal courts is the Supreme Court’s main reason for accepting a case. The decision to grant this case in the absence of such a dispute spread alarm throughout the civil rights community on the assumption that a majority was prepared to shut the door on retaliation claims.
There was ample reason for that assumption, since Chief Justice Roberts had earlier made clear his distaste for precedents in which the court has gone beyond a statute’s text to infer a basis for a lawsuit.
It was especially significant, therefore, that both he and Justice Alito signed on to Justice Breyer’s discussion of the importance of “stare decisis,” the court’s doctrine of adherence to precedent. Even if the court’s approach to statutory interpretation was changing, Justice Breyer wrote, “we could not agree that the existence of such a change would justify re-examination of well-established prior law.”
He added: “Principles of stare decisis, after all, demand respect for precedent whether judicial methods of interpretation change or stay the same. Were that not so, those principles would fail to achieve the legal stability that they seek and upon which the rule of law depends.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, accused the majority of hiding behind “the fig leaf of ersatz stare decisis,” relying on precedents that had been incorrectly decided in the first place.