Former employees who get bad job references or suffer other harms after filing a civil-rights complaint can sue the companies that they allege retaliated against them, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
Under federal law, it is illegal not only to discriminate against employees because of their race or sex, but also to retaliate against them for having complained about a civil-rights violation.
At issue in this case was whether those protections applied only to current employees of a company or extended to former workers as well. The 9-0 ruling by the court, following the lead of most lower courts, defined employees to include both present and past workers.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the former chairman of the agency that enforces the federal anti-bias laws, said that it “would undermine the effectiveness” of these measures if victims could be fired and then punished for having complained about illegal discrimination. Indeed, it “would provide a perverse incentive for employers to fire employees” who were considering bringing discrimination claims, he said.
Tuesday’s ruling allows a Maryland salesman to try to prove that he received a bad reference from a Shell Oil official in retaliation for having filed a race discrimination complaint against the company.
The former salesman, Charles T. Robinson, was dismissed from his job in 1991 as a regional representative for Shell. He then filed a lawsuit contending that he was fired because he is black.
Four months after his dismissal, he applied for a job with the Metropolitan Insurance Co. When contacted by that firm, Ross Fava, a sales manager for Shell, completed a questionnaire that rated Robinson as a poor employee who would not be rehired.
In response, Robinson filed a second civil-rights complaint, this time alleging that Shell had retaliated against him for his first suit.
In 1994, a federal judge in Baltimore heard Robinson’s first claim of race discrimination and ruled that his firing was justified and was unrelated to his race.
A year later, the U.S. court of appeals in Richmond, Va., threw out his second suit on grounds that he no longer was an employee of Shell and therefore was not covered by the Civil Rights Act.
The decision (Robinson vs. Shell Oil, 95-1376) reverses the decision in the first case and revives his second complaint.
The court also gave a victory to organized labor, upholding a California law that limits the authority of contractors to pay lower wages to apprentices.
State law says that these lower wages can be paid only to those who are in state-approved programs. A U.S. court of appeals, siding with a Sonoma County contractor, allowed the payment of lower wages to apprentices who were not approved by the state. But the high court reversed that decision unanimously (California vs. Dillingham Construction, 95-789).