WASHINGTON -- A federal anti-discrimination agency may step in to win back pay or other help for workers who have signed away the right to sue their employers, a divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The 6-3 ruling clarifies the reach of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and curbs the ability of employers to keep workplace disputes out of the courts.
The high court held that the EEOC may sue for money in federal court on behalf of a short-order cook who was fired after he had a seizure at work. The cook had agreed when he was hired that any on-the-job dispute would be resolved by arbitration, but the EEOC can ignore that agreement, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion.
The court's decision means that in some cases the EEOC can circumvent an arbitration agreement to do for an individual wronged worker what the worker is unable or perhaps unwilling to do for himself.
The EEOC is "the master of its own case," and free to decide for itself whether it is in the public's interest to pursue a given lawsuit, Stevens wrote on behalf of himself and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
"It is the public agency's province, not that of the court, to determine whether public resources should be committed to the recovery of victim-specific relief," Stevens wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who once headed the EEOC, dissented. The EEOC must "take a victim of discrimination as it finds him," Thomas wrote on behalf of himself, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.
"I cannot agree that the EEOC may do on behalf of an employee that which an employee has agreed not to do for himself," Thomas wrote.
Arbitration agreements like the one Eric Scott Baker signed when applying for a job at a Waffle House restaurant cover an estimated 10 percent of the American work force, and are increasingly popular with employers.
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