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Court eases retaliation proof requirement

UPDATE 10:31 a.m.

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a worker complaining of retaliation on the job for having complained about bias may sue even if that individual has not suffered an ultimate adverse action such as firing or denial of promotion. Reassignment to a less attractive job or a temporary suspension without pay can constitute retaliation, the Court said in deciding Burlington Northern v. White (05-259). (The Court’s decision is available here; Justice Samuel Alito’s concurring opinion is here.)

The disagreement within the Court — between eight Justices and Alito — centered on the scope of the anti-retaliation provision in Title VII. The Court concluded that workers claiming retaliation could sue not only over action taken against them in the workplace, on their wages, hours and working conditions, but also acts by the employer “outside the workplace.” The Court cited as examples of this broader kind of retaliation a failure to investigate threats against an FBI agent who had complained and filing false criminal charges against an employee who had complained. Alito argued that the concept should be confined to workplace action. Alito, who joined only the result, also objected to the majority’s test of how severe retaliatory action must be; the majority said it would embrace acts that might dissuade a “reasonable worker” from complaining about workplace bias, even if the action did not go so far as firing or denial of a promotion.

The Court chose to avoid a ruling on the merits on what had appeared to be a significant patent case — Laboratory Corporation of America v. Metabolite Laboratories (04-607). The appeal had asked the Court to rule on the patentability of a process of detecting a scientific relationship beween a medical test result and a medical condition in a patient. After hearing argument in the case, the Court dismissed the petition as “improvidently granted.” The vote was 5-3, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., not taking part. Dissents from such orders are not common. In this case, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Justices David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens, filed a 15-page dissent.

In a 7-2 decision, the Court ruled that it does not violate due process for a jury in a criminal trial to be instructed that an accused claiming the defense of duress or coecion has the burden to prove that defense by a preponderance of the evidence. The case was Dixon v. U.S. (05-7053). (The Court’s opinion is here; the concurring opinions of Justices Kennedy and Alito are here and here; Justice Breyer’s dissent is here.)

In another ruling, the Court decided that prison inmates must meet any filing deadlines in order to satisfy the requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act that they exhaust remedies before pursuing a civil rights lawsuit challenging prison conditions. The ruling, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., came on a 6-3 vote in Woodfod v. Ngo. Alito wrote that the exhaustion mandate includes satisfing all procedural rules, and an inmate does not accomplish exhaustion if an administrative complaint is filed too late or is otherwise procedurally flawed. (The Court’s opinion is available here; Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion is here; Justice Stevens’s dissent is here.)

By a vote of 8-1, the Court ruled that a change in federal immigration law in 1996 restricting the rights of aliens who return illegally to the U.S. after being deported applies to those who came back before the law was enacted. At the same time, however, the Court decided that the provision has no retroactive effect on an individual who had been deported, had returned to the U.S., and then remained for 20 years. The change in the law, the Court said, imposed no burden on him, the Court said, concluding that it was his decision to remain in the country after reentry that violates the law, and not some past act. The decision came in the case of Fernandez-Vargas v. Gonzales (04-1376). (The Court’s opinion is available here; Justice Stevens’s dissent is available here.)

The Court has finished with issuing merits decisions for the day. Ten more rulings are expected before the end of the Term this month, with the next announcement of opinions due on Monday.