Humphries Case


In a 7-2 decision issued on May 27, 2008, the United States Supreme Court upheld the right of RCC's client, Hedrick G. Humphries, a Chicago-area African-American man, to sue his former employer, Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, for firing him in violation of one of the nation's oldest civil rights laws, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Section 1981).

Cracker Barrel fired Mr. Humphries after he complained about race discrimination against himself and a fellow African-American employee. Mr. Humphries claimed the retaliatory firing violated Section 1981, which Congress passed just after the Civil War to give blacks equal rights to make and enforce contracts, and which has long been understood to prohibit race discrimination in employment relationships. RCC argued that principles of stare decisis and fundamental rules of statutory construction compelled recognition of a right of action for retaliation. Numerous scholars and members of Congress, as well as thirteen state attorneys general, over two-hundred prominent civil rights organizations, and the United States Justice Department, filed amicus curiae briefs supporting Mr. Humphries' position.  Cynthia H. Hyndman of RCC argued the case for Mr. Humphries.

The Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Humphries. Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer emphasized the role of stare decisis, particularly, the need to follow Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park, Inc., 396 U.S. 229 (1969), where the Court found a cause of action for retaliation under the companion statute to Section 1981. "Principles of stare decisis, after all, demand respect for precedent whether judicial methods of interpretation change or stay the same. Were that not so, those principles would fail to achieve the legal stability that they seek and upon which the rule of law depends."

The decision means that Mr. Humphries can now take his claim to trial and prove the facts of his retaliatory firing. It also means that employees around the nation will be protected against termination and other adverse employment actions if they complain of unlawful racial discrimination in the workplace.  The Supreme Court's opinion can be read here. 

The decision has received substantial media attention, including from National Public RadioUSA Today, the New York Times, the Chicago Sun Times, and the PBS News Hour.  It was praised in a lead New York Times editorial and analyzed as "big news" in the Washington Post.

The media also paid close attention to the case at the time it was argued in February 2008.  The case was covered by, among others, National Public RadioSlate, and the PBS News Hour.  The oral argument transcript can be found here and RCC's Supreme Court brief on behalf of Mr. Humphries can be found here.  The Supreme Court took the case after RCC prevailed for Mr. Humphries in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  That court's opinion (which the Supreme Court affirmed) is reported at 474 F.3d 387 (7th Cir. 2007).