Supreme Court Wrap-Up: Supremes Rule that Section 1981 Encompasses Claims for Retaliation

The United States Supreme Court has recently issued a number of very employee-friendly employment discrimination decisions. In this post and our next few posts, we will discuss these important employment discrimination decisions.

CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries

In the first case, CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, the Court addressed the issue of whether 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Section 1981) permits actions for retaliatory discharge. Section 1981 is a Civil War-era federal civil rights law that gives “all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States . . . the same right . . . to make and enforce contracts . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens.” Plaintiffs often choose to file race discrimination claims under Section 1981 in addition to Title VII claims because there is no requirement to first file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, Section 1981’s statue of limitations is much longer than Title VII’s 180-day limitations period, and Section 1981 has no cap on damages. However, unlike Title VII, Section 1981 does not contain language prohibiting retaliation, and many courts have therefore held that retaliation claims are not available under the statute.

In the case, Hedrick Humphries was an African-American manager of a Cracker Barrel restaurant who claimed he was discharged because of his race and because he had complained that another African-American employee had been discriminated against because of his race. Accordingly, he brought suit under both Title VII and Section 1981. The lower court dismissed Humphries’ Title VII claim on procedural grounds and granted Cracker Barrel’s motion for summary judgment on Humphries’ Section 1981 claim, holding that retaliation claims are not available under the statute.

On appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, although the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Humphries’ Title VII claim, it reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Humphries’ Section 1981 claim, holding that Section 1981 encompasses claims for retaliation even though the statute is absolutely silent on this issue.

Cracker Barrel’s Appeal Rejected

Cracker Barrel then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that because the language of Section 1981 does not prohibit retaliation claims, there is no principled basis for reading such a provision into the statute. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court rejected Cracker Barrel’s arguments and affirmed the Seventh Circuit, holding that Section 1981 encompasses retaliation claims. In so holding, the Court relied on several of its previous decisions interpreting other civil rights statutes in which it held that such statutes encompassed retaliation claims even though they did not contain anti-retaliation language in the statutory texts.

Humphries is a powerful decision in that a significant majority of the Court read an implied right into a statute that contains no such express right (a point which Justices Scalia and Thomas in their dissenting opinion take pains to point out). The decision further highlights the importance of retaliation as a powerful cause of action in the employment discrimination context.

Stay tuned for our continuing Supreme Court wrap-up!

Related: Making a Discrimination Claim Under 42 U.S.C. §1981