Court to rule on workers' shield from ex-employers Md. man says company punished him for filing bias charges over firing

April 23, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide if a worker fired from one job allegedly because of race has a right to seek new work without his former bosses retaliating by interfering with his search.

A Maryland man, Charles T. Robinson Sr., persuaded the court to consider whether he is covered by a federal law that protects workers from retaliation after they have accused their companies of illegal discrimination in the workplace.

That law is designed to assure workers not only that they can pursue claims of bias, but also that, once they do, their employers cannot make them suffer for having exercised their rights.

A dispute has arisen among federal appeals courts around the nation, however, on whether that law covers a company's former employees, as well as its current employees.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled in November that once Mr. Robinson was no longer employed by Shell Oil Co., he could not challenge under civil rights law anything that Shell may have done after their relationship came to an end.

A total of nine U.S. appeals courts have now ruled on that issue; one of them agrees with the Richmond court, while seven others disagreed and have assured workers that leaving a job does not cut off their rights to claim that their former employer retaliated.

Mr. Robinson, who now lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, was a sales representative for Shell when he was fired more than four years ago. He contended that he was discharged because of his race; he is black. His race bias complaint failed in federal court in Baltimore.

While that court case went ahead, Mr. Robinson applied for a job at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. That company contacted Shell and got back a negative report on him: Shell said that he had been fired, that Shell would not rehire him, that his job performance was below average and that he had a poor job attendance record.

Mr. Robinson was then denied a job at the insurance company. Yesterday, his attorney, Allen M. Lencheck of Rockville, said that Mr. Robinson later got a job with Metropolitan Life, but has since left that position and now works for another company.

After Shell gave its negative report on him, Mr. Robinson went back into federal court, claiming that Shell was retaliating for his earlier claim of bias. At Shell's request, the new case was thrown out when the judge concluded that the law does not apply to former employees.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the case next fall and issue a final decision about a year from now.

Civil rights case

In another civil rights case, the court agreed yesterday to spell out what kind of hiring decisions may make a county or city government legally responsible for the acts of an employee who violates someone's rights.

A deputy sheriff hired by his uncle, an Oklahoma county sheriff, despite a lengthy criminal record of convictions and arrests was found to have used excessive force when he pulled a woman out of her car and threw her to the ground, injuring her knees. He said the woman was refusing to obey his orders to get out of the car after a high-speed chase.

The county also has been held responsible for the deputy's actions on the theory that the sheriff should have investigated his background before hiring him and should not have hired him at all. The county contends in an appeal that a single hiring decision by a county official should not be enough to blame the county for the misdeeds of a worker it hires.

Other actions

In another action, the court refused to review the constitutionality of an Oklahoma City ordinance that makes it a crime for one person to solicit another person in public to engage in sex. That law was used to prosecute a gay man for inviting a plainclothes police officer in a park to engage in a homosexual act.

The court also turned aside, without comment, a plea by the Federal Communications Commission to clarify its power to enforce the federal law that bars radio and television stations from overcharging political candidates for airing their campaign advertisements. A lower court has questioned the FCC's power to be the sole authority to monitor charges for political ads.

Pub Date: 4/23/96

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