Worker rights gain in high court Laws can protect 'at-will' employees

NYNEX wins its case

December 15, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Broadening federal job rights law, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that those laws can be used to shield even a worker who has no job security and can be laid off or fired at any time.

Generally speaking, laws against workplace discrimination apply to all workers on the payroll, even some of those who work part time. In its new ruling, the court made clear that a "at-will" employee who has no guarantee of staying on the job is covered, too.

The decision dealt with a specific part of an old civil rights law: a ban, dating from 1871, against firing a worker for having cooperated in a federal investigation of the employer. Under that law, a lawsuit seeking damages may be filed against supervisors or co-workers who have plotted to have such an employee discharged.

The fact that the employer is ordinarily free to dismiss the worker without needing a reason to do so, the court said, does not allow co-workers or supervisors to retaliate by using threats or taking other action to dismiss that worker.

The language of the court's opinion was broader than the specifics of the case, suggesting that at-will workers are fully protected against workplace actions that violate their federal civil rights.

The decision was a clear-cut victory for Michael A. Haddle of Augusta, Ga., who sued two supervisors under that law. Haddle claimed that the two supervisors conspired to have him fired from his job at a private health facility after he cooperated with a federal investigation of Medicare fraud at that facility.

In a second unanimous decision yesterday, the court ruled that it is not an automatic violation of antitrust law for a buyer of goods to stop purchasing from one company and shift to another in an effort to put the former supplier out of business.

Such a switch of suppliers, the court declared, amounts to an illegal boycott under antitrust law only when there is proof that the switch harmed competition among suppliers.

The ruling was at least a temporary victory for NYNEX Corp., a Bell Atlantic subsidiary. NYNEX was sued after it stopped using a small New York company, Discon Inc., to remove old telephone equipment from NYNEX facilities.

Instead, the lawsuit contended, a NYNEX subsidiary shifted the equipment-removal business to an affiliate of AT&T, in a complex plan to pass on the charges of the removal services to telephone customers.

A lower court ruled that this was similar to a "group boycott" of Discon, and such boycotts are automatically illegal.

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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