The number of retaliation claims filed against employers has grown rapidly in the last few years, and a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court is likely to further increase that growth. On May 27, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held in CBOCS West Inc. v. Humphries, No. 06-1431, that employees may bring retaliation claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Section 1981, which was enacted just after the Civil War, prohibits racial discrimination regarding the right to “make and enforce contracts.” Section 1981 broadly applies to all contracts, including employment contracts. Generally, Minnesota employees who feel that they have been subject to race discrimination have three potential legal theories upon which to base their claims: Title VII, the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), and Section 1981. Similar to Title VII and the MHRA, Section 1981 protects employees against employment-based discrimination, but unlike Title VII and the MHRA, the text of Section 1981 does not specifically prohibit retaliation against employees who complain about race discrimination. Following the Court’s decision in Humphries, it is now clear that Section 1981 also prohibits retaliation against employees who complain about race discrimination.
So how does the Supreme Court’s decision impact Minnesota employers? The decision is significant for a number of reasons. First, Section 1981 provides a longer statute of limitations than Title VII or the MHRA. Under Title VII, plaintiffs only have 180 to 300 days in which to file an action, and under the MHRA, employees have one year to file an action. The limitations period for violations of Section 1981, on the other hand, is four years, meaning that an employee could bring a claim for retaliation up to four years after an incident of alleged retaliation occurs. In addition, under Section 1981, employees do not have to satisfy any administrative remedies before filing a suit and there is no cap on damages as there is under Title VII and the MHRA. Simply put, the Court’s ruling in Humphries makes it easier and potentially more profitable for plaintiffs who have complained of race discrimination to assert retaliation claims.
That being said, the same thoughtful preventative measures that help employers to avoid Title VII and MHRA retaliation claims will also help to prevent Section 1981 claims. Taking the following steps may reduce the risk of retaliation claims by putting employees on notice that they are prohibited from retaliating against others in the workplace. In addition, these steps should help encourage employees to report retaliation concerns early so that the employer can address those concerns before a lawsuit is commenced.
* This article is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Employers are urged to consult a lawyer concerning any specific legal questions they may have. If you have any questions about the issues discussed in this article, please contact Casey Nolan or another member of the Gray Plant Mooty Employment Law Practice Group.
This article is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. You are urged to consult a lawyer concerning any specific legal questions you may have.
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