Courting Disaster: Update 2001-2002

Civil Rights and Discrimination

The Supreme Court’s record on civil rights was mixed but largely negative in 2001-2002. In a number of decisions, particularly several dealing with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Court significantly restricted civil rights protections, threatening millions of disabled and other Americans. In several cases, the Court upheld important civil rights protections. With few exceptions, Justices Scalia and Thomas consistently led the Court in restricting civil rights, and dissented from rulings favorable to victims of discrimination. Adding more Justices like Scalia and Thomas to the Court would further jeopardize civil rights protections.

For example, in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 122 S.Ct. 1516 (2002), the Court limited ADA protections by ruling, 5-4, that in most circumstances, a company need not alter its seniority system to accommodate an employee with a disability. Writing for the Court majority, Justice Breyer explained that a disabled worker could overcome the presumption in favor of a seniority system if he or she could demonstrate “special circumstances.” Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented, arguing that under no circumstances should a company be required to disregard a seniority system to accommodate a disabled worker. This would have weakened even further the protections accorded to disabled Americans. Justices Souter and Ginsburg dissented in favor of an interpretation of the ADA that would have required an employer in the circumstances of this case to demonstrate that disregarding its seniority system in order to accommodate a disabled employee would have worked an “undue hardship.”

The Court issued three unanimous rulings limiting the protections and reach of the ADA. In Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 122 S.Ct. 681 (2002), the Court adopted a restrictive standard for determining whether someone is disabled within the meaning of the ADA. The Court held that an individual who claims that his or her impairment substantially limits the “major life activity” of “performing manual tasks” is considered disabled under the ADA only if the impairment “prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives,” as distinct from being limited in performing specific tasks crucial to a job. Thus, the Court ruled that a person whose carpal tunnel syndrome and other impairments prevented her from performing certain manual tasks, including those important to her job, could not as matter of law be considered disabled under the ADA because such tasks are not of
3central importance to most people’s daily lives. In Barnes v. Gorman, 122 S.Ct. 2097 (2002), the Court ruled that punitive damages may not be awarded in a private lawsuit brought under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Although all nine members of the Court agreed with this ruling, three of them concurred only in the judgment, stating that Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court (joined by Justice Thomas) was needlessly “expansive” and had “potentially far-reaching consequences that go well beyond the issues briefed and argued in this case,” such as precluding punitive damages in suits brought under other Spending Clause statutes. In Chevron U.S.A. v. Echazabal, 122 S.Ct. 2045 (2002), the Court held that under the ADA, an employer can refuse to hire a person whose disability on the job would pose a direct threat to his or her health, even if the person is willing to perform the job.

On the other hand, in a 6-3 decision, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Waffle House, Inc., 122 S.Ct. 754 (2002), a divided Court held that the statutory authority of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to sue an employer for violating the ADA and seek monetary and other relief for a victimized employee includes the situation in which the employee has signed an agreement with the employer requiring arbitration of all employment disputes. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented, and would have denied the EEOC this important means of combating discrimination against Americans with disabilities in such circumstances. Since many employers, like the employer in this case, require employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment, adding more Justices to the Court like Scalia and Thomas would threaten this important means of enforcing the ADA, and potentially other discrimination laws as well.

Although the Court avoided making a decision on affirmative action in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Mineta, 122 S.Ct. 511 (2001), by dismissing a challenge to Department of Transportation affirmation action rules, the Court did decide a number of other important civil rights related cases. By a five-justice majority, including Scalia and Thomas, the Court in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. National Labor Relations Board, 122 S.Ct. 1275 (2002), held that the National Labor Relations Board could not award backpay to a worker who had been unlawfully fired for participating in union-organizing, because the worker was an undocumented alien who was not authorized to work in this country. Justices Breyer, Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg vigorously dissented, explaining that the decision would allow significant exploitation of undocumented workers and that the failure to enforce the labor laws would in fact encourage the hiring of illegal workers.

4One civil rights case produced a split between Thomas and Scalia. In National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 122 S.Ct. 2061 (2002), Justice Thomas joined Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer in a 5-4 ruling that an employer may be held liable under Title VII for all acts creating a hostile work environment, even if some of those acts occurred outside the statutory period during which a victimized employee must file charges, as long as at least one act contributing to the claim occurred within the filing period. Justice Scalia joined a dissent by Justice O’Connor that would have held that an employee who had unlawfully been subjected to a hostile work environment could not recover damages “for that part of the hostile environment that occurred outside the charge-filing period.”

In two unanimous rulings, the Court maintained important procedural safeguards for civil rights litigants. In Edelman v. Lynchburg College, 122 S.Ct. 1145 (2002), the Court upheld an EEOC regulation effectively providing that, even after the period allotted for filing a “charge” of employment discrimination under Title VII with the EEOC has expired, the complainant may still amend the charge in order to comply with the “technical” requirement of swearing to or affirming the truth of the charge. In Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 122 S.Ct. 992 (2002), the Court held that a complaint charging employment discrimination filed in federal court need not contain “specific facts establishing a prima facie case of discrimination,” in keeping with procedural rules providing that the purpose of a federal court complaint is simply to “give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff’s claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” In so ruling, the Court specifically noted that “the Federal Rules do not contain a heightened pleading standard for employment discrimination suits.”

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