The Supreme Court decided two employment discrimination cases today involving retaliation. In Gomez-Perez v. Potter the Court found that as applied to federal-sector employees, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids retaliation against employees for complaining about age discrimination, while in CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, the Court found a similar prohibition on retaliation against employees who complain about race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1981. Interestingly, Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion in Gomez-Perez and joined the majority in CBOCS, while CJ Roberts dissented in Gomez-Perez and joined the majority in CBOCS. Only Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented in both cases.
The decisions turn on the wording of the relevant statutes, comparisons with other statutes, and the Court's prior decisions, but at bottom they also turn on how the Court views the anti-discrimination laws. At least where the complainant himself or herself is the alleged victim of discrimination, disallowing retaliation claims is perverse. It permits an employer a valid defense by claiming "we didn't fire you because of your race [or sex or age]; we fired you because you complained about discrimination based on race [or sex or age]." Such a regime discourages employees from making internal complaints about discrimination and can gut anti-discrimination law.
CJ Roberts is right when he says in his Gomez-Perez dissent that a statute that confers a right against discrimination doesn't necessarily confer a right against retaliation, but given the perversity just described, one should demand a clear statement in the statute excluding retaliation claims before one rejects them. Arguably, one could find such a statement in the structure of the federal-sector ADEA as juxtaposed against the private-sector ADEA, which makes the Chief Justice's Gomez-Perez dissent at least reasonable. No such clear statement can be found in section 1981, which arguably shows Justices Thomas and Scalia to be hostile to anti-discrimination law.
Posted by Mike Dorf