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No Waffling On Discrimination Suit

Cities can ban large events in public parks, police have broad discretion on whether to search a vehicle, but a pre-hiring agreement doesn't prevent a federal agency from suing on behalf of workers, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato.

That 6-3 ruling clarifies the reach of the 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.

"[It's a] definite win for employees and a definite win for the EEOC and its power to enforce discrimination laws in this country," University of Pennsylvania employment law expert Deborah Weinstein told CBS Radio News. "This is a quite a victory for employees in this country from a Supreme Court that we've been thinking was pretty pro-employer lately."

The Justices giveth and the Justices taketh away, says CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. Last week the Supreme Court handed employers a significant victory when it narrowed the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This time, the Court handed many of those same employers a defeat by weakening the arbitration clauses contained in employee agreements.

What the court is saying is that in some cases where discrimination is alleged, a prior agreement between employer and employee to arbitrate any dispute can be ignored by the EEOC, which can investigate the case and then sue in federal court on behalf of the employee.

Because it limits the scope of their arbitration clauses, employers aren't likely to be thrilled with this decision but employees will be delighted by it because it allows the courts to come to their rescue in cases where discrimination may exist.

Now the question is how far this ruling will go in affecting other disputes where arbitration clauses are present and you can bet that there will be parties lining up to push the limits of this ruling into other contexts.

In a Chicago case, the court upheld the right of cities to limit large scale events in public parks, as long as the laws aren't used to exclude specific groups or messages.

"This is not a censorship case. Because our ordinance is content-neutral, it doesn't serve to censor particular viewpoints or messages," insisted winning attorney Steve Weiss, who defended the Chicago ordinance, in an interview. "As long as the city or park district has criteria that do not consider the message that's being given or te content of what the speaker wants to do, then it's OK, it's not a constitutional problem."

The justices also gave broad discretion to police to decide when a vehicle can be searched, striking down a lower court's attempt to create specific rules for vehicle searches. This case deals with a drug search in Arizona.

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.

Many of those covered by arbitration agreements are low-wage workers like Baker. He agreed to arbitration as a condition of getting his minimum-wage job as a grill operator in West Columbia, S.C.

Baker suffers from a seizure disorder as a result of an automobile accident. He had a seizure on the job in 1994, and was quickly fired for what Waffle House said were his own safety and the good of the restaurant.

Instead of arbitration, Baker took his case to the EEOC, which sued in federal court for what it called a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Waffle House should have made reasonable allowances for Baker's medical problem, so that he could go on working, the EEOC argued.

A federal appeals court said while the EEOC could use Baker's case to try to win broad concessions from Waffle House in other discrimination cases, the arbitration agreement prevented the EEOC from winning reinstatement, back pay or money damages for Baker himself.

The EEOC, backed first by the Democratic Clinton administration and then by the Republican Bush administration, appealed to the Supreme Court.

©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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