WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1991 can be applied retroactively to hundreds of lawsuits in which workers say they were subjected to race or gender discrimination before the new law took effect.
A ruling, due next year, could result in huge damage verdicts against some companies. The Supreme Court announced yesterday it would hear the case.
The 1991 law, for the first time, gave women workers the right to win financial awards if they were denied a job or a promotion because of their gender or were sexually harassed on the job. Before, such acts were illegal, but victims could only hope to gain a judicial order demanding that the discrimination end.
The new law also gave black employees the right to seek damages for on-the-job harassment.
In November 1991, President Bush signed the new law into effect after having battled the Democrat-controlled Congress over its provisions for nearly two years. But the Democrats and the Bush aides failed to reach agreement on a key issue: Did the new damage remedies in the law apply to cases that already were in the legal pipeline?
That question will be answered in two cases before the court, one involving racial discrimination at a trucking company in Ohio and a second involving sexual harassment at a film processing center in Texas.
No statistics are available on how many cases would be affected, but civil rights lawyers say the number could be in the thousands.
"We have counted already 350 reported decisions" by judges on whether the law can be applied retroactively, said Richard Seymour of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
So far, the vast majority of judges who have considered the issue have ruled that the law does not apply to discrimination that occurred before November 1991.
In the Ohio trucking case, Maurice Rivers, an experienced black mechanic, was fired in 1986 after 14 years of service. He contended that he was dismissed after suffering racial discrimination on the job. But in 1989 a judge threw out his lawsuit based on a recent Supreme Court decision. (Rivers vs. Roadway Express).
In the Texas case, the judges who heard the facts agreed that Barbara Landgraf had been subjected to "significant sexual harassment" by her supervisor between 1984 and 1986. But in May 1991, a federal judge denied her request for damages under the law as it then stood. (Landgraf vs. USI Film Products).