Supreme Court may cut back on workers' rights

January 09, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court indicated yesterday that it might cut back further on workers' civil rights as it agreed to consider adding a new and higher legal hurdle in job bias cases.

The court issued a brief order promising a decision by next summer in a case involving a black Missouri prison officer who was disciplined, then fired by his white boss and replaced by a white.

Missouri officials urged the court to use that case to lay down a strict rule that workers would have to satisfy in order to win claims that they were treated unequally at work because of their race, sex or religion.

Under the proposed rule, workers would have to prove that every reason the employer actually gave for what it did, and every reason that the employer might have given but didn't, was phony and could not explain the unequal treatment.

In the Missouri case, a federal appeals court ruled last summer that workers offering clear evidence that action taken against them was motivated by race, gender or religious bias would win, automatically, if they could discount as phony the nonbiased reasons the employer had actually offered for its action.

The appeals court ruling came in the case of Melvin Hicks, a black shift commander at a Missouri prison in St. Louis, a place where one study had found a risk of "racial polarization" because there were "too many blacks in positions of power."

Mr. Hicks began to get into trouble when new supervisors, who were white, were put in charge of the facility in 1984. He was disciplined for rules violations in ways that, Mr. Hicks claimed, went well beyond any punishment given to white officers in similar situations. He was fired in June 1984 after a heated exchange with his white boss.

He sued in federal court, claiming to be the victim of race bias, and a federal judge ruled that there was clear evidence of unequal treatment based on race. The judge also said that Mr. Hicks had successfully disproved his superiors' claims that he was fired for severe and repeated rules violations.

But, the judge went on to rule that the actions against Mr. Hicks seemed to be the result of his boss' personal hostility toward him -- a reason the boss had never offered. Mr. Hicks did not disprove that as the reason, the judge found, and thus should lose the case.

The appeals court overturned that result, and said Mr. Hicks should have won the case, and should get damages.

The Supreme Court voted to hear Missouri officials' appeal seeking to take away Mr. Hicks' victory. The court, which usually acts on new cases on Mondays, took action yesterday to assure that the Missouri case will be decided before time runs out in this term.

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