Supreme Court ruling makes it easier for employees to sue employers

Late in May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of employees who claimed that they were retaliated against after complaining about workplace discrimination.

"This ruling increases the range of options for litigants to bring suits against their employers," said Steven Sheinberg, associate director of legal affairs at the Anti-Defamation League and member of the National Employment Lawyers Association. "Employers are on notice that retaliation is something that will be taken very, very seriously."

A female clerk at the United States Postal Service in Puerto Rico complained that she was discriminated against on the basis of age and claimed that her supervisors retaliated against her as a result of her initial complaint.

In an unrelated case, an African American male and former Cracker Barrel employee complained that a white colleague racially discriminated against another African American employee upon firing him. The man maintains that he lost his own job as a result of his complaint.

Retaliation complaints have greatly increased in number during the past 15 years. In fact, complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have doubled since 1993. One explanation for this could be that it often is easier for employees to prove they were retaliated against than it is to prove that they were victims of discrimination.

Sheinberg outlined a few practical steps companies can take to guard against retaliation claims:

  • Have a lawyer carefully examine the company's policies regarding retaliation.

  • Have solid diversity programs and expressly discuss retaliation in these programs.

  • Communicate clearly with managers that parties engaging in protected activity (e.g., filing complaints, reporting discrimination, filing lawsuits) are not to be adversely affected because of that protected activity.

  • Communicate with employees who engage in protected activity and make sure they know exactly who in management to speak to about suspected retaliation.

  • Since employment claims are fairly complicated, think about getting lawyers involved at an early stage.

    For more information, see the Supreme Court's decisions in Gomez-perez v. Potter, Postmaster General and CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries.

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