— Posts About US Supreme Court

SCOTUS Rules that Self-Care Provision of the FMLA does not Apply to the States: North Carolina Not Affected

In Coleman v. Court Of Appeals Of Maryland, Daniel Coleman was employed by the Court of Appeals of the State of Maryland.  When he requested sick leave, he was informed he would be terminated if he did not resign.  He then filed an FMLA suit, which was dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds.  Breaking along the familiar 5-4 line, the Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal.  Under the Court’s recent 14th Amendment jurisprudence, Congress can abrogate state sovereign immunity under Section 5 only if its legislation is sufficiently “tailored” to remedy violations of the 14th Amendment’s substantive provisions, such as the Equal Protection Clause.  In Nev. Dep’t of Human Res. v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721 (2003), the Court held this standard was met by the family-member-care provision of the FMLA because it addressed gender discrimination related to family leave.  The majority here, however, found no “widespread evidence of sex discrimination or sex stereotyping in the administration of sick leave,” and thus no Equal Protection basis for the provision.

Justice Ginsberg, in dissent, discussed the entire history of the FMLA and its focus on addressing gender discrimination in employee leave policies.  One of the primary motivations for the self-care provision was to provide leave for women suffering from pregnancy-related illness and those recovering from pregnancy.  Also important was mandating personal leave in addition to family leave so that employers would not have a new reason to discriminate against female employees.  She thus found a sufficient basis for Congress to apply the FMLA to the states.

State employees in North Carolina are not hurt by this decision, however, because North Carolinahas waived its sovereign immunity for FMLA suits brought by state employees.  See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-300.35(a)(3).

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US Supreme Court to Decide Important Wage and Hour Case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States granted a writ of certiorari in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp.  The Ninth Circuit’s opinion, now on appeal, can be viewed here.  The issue was whether pharmaceutical sales representatives are “outside salesman” as referenced in Section 213(a) of the Fair Labor Standards Act and therefore exempt from legal overtime requirements.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the salespeople were exempt from overtime, thus refusing to defer to the Department of Labor’s regulations on this issue.

The Supreme Court has granted review on these issues:

“(1) Whether deference is owed to the Secretary of Labor’s interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s outside sales exemption and related regulations; and (2) whether the Fair Labor Standards Act’s outside sales exemption applies to pharmaceutical sales representatives.”

The petition for certiorari may be viewed here.

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Jon Harkavy Presents Annual Paper on SCOTUS Employment Law Decisions

On October 21st, at the 27th Annual North Carolina/South Carolina Labor and Employment Law CLE held in Charleston, South Carolina, Jonathan Harkavy presented his 2010-11 annual review of the Supreme Court’s employment law cases.  His paper is entitled “Supreme Court of the United States Employment Law Commentary, 2010 Term.”  (Please download his article from here.)

 Introduction:  The 2010 Term of the Supreme Court of the United States put a spotlight on the significant – though oddly unheralded – role that employment law plays in our country’s economy and in our citizens’ daily lives. One of the nation’s keenest (and self-described “obsessive”) Court observers recently characterized this term as “straight-up dull.” Emily Bazelon, “Chamber of Pain,” The New York Times Magazine, p. 9 (August 7, 2011.) My own judgment, however, is that what the Justices did in the employment area was consequential, if not downright exciting.  Through a number of employment-related cases, a cohesive and assertive majority of the Court fashioned the law to fit its socio-economic (if not overtly political) view that the employment relationship ought to be deregulated.  In doing so, the Court continued to pursue what the Reagan revolution began and the Tea Party followers hope to complete.  But more about that later.  For Court observers of all political stripes, the 2010 Term’s smorgasbord of decisions provides a feast to be savored and debated for months to come.

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Supreme Court Expands Wage and Hour Retaliation Claims

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of an employee last week in Kasten V. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp, which involves a retaliation claim based on verbal complaints of wage and hour violations.

The plaintiff, an employee at Saint-Gobain, complained verbally several times about the placement of the time clock at Saint-Gobain being unlawful.  The time clock was placed beyond the area where workers were required to dress in protective clothing thus they were not paid for the time they donned and doffed their protective work gear.  A lower court ruled in a related case that the placement of the time clock was indeed a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In this case, the Court considered the use of the phrase “filed any complaint” and whether it allowed for a complaint about a violation to be filed orally or if it strictly limited complaints to be filed in writing.  Justice Breyer thoroughly defined the word “file” and “filed” only to conclude that what really mattered was the spirit of the text.  Breyer found that the intended purpose of the FLSA was to protect employees many of which, at the time the law was written, were illiterate and incapable of filing complaints in writing.  The Court concluded that employees may file complaints orally if the complaint is “sufficiently clear and detailed [enough] for a reasonable employer to understand it.”  The Court, however, did not address an equally important issue about whether a complaint must be filed with a government agency, not simply an employer, to fall within the standards of the FLSA anti-retaliation provision.

This case is a partial win for employees, granting them further protection against employment discrimination under the FLSA.  (More coverage here.)

UPDATE: Jonathan Harkavy’s commentary on this case can be found here from his overview of the Supreme Court’s employment law decisions during their 2010 session.

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Supreme Court Issues Important Decision in Discrimination Case

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the US Supreme Court just issued an important unanimous decision in this military-service-based discrimination case.  This case concerns the so-called “cat’s paw” theory of liability, under which one supervisor acts with discriminatory intent against the plaintiff, but the plaintiff is actually fired by another supervisor.  The case arose under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which protects members of the military from workplace discrimination based on their military position or service.  The Court held that “if a supervisor performs an act motivated by antimilitary animus that is intended by the supervisor to cause an adverse employment action, and if that act is a proximate cause of the ultimate employment action, then the employer is liable under USERRA.”

Because the language of USERRA is very similar to Title VII, this principal likely also applies to cases of race and sex discrimination at least.  (More coverage here, here.)

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Supreme Court Endorses Associational Retaliation Claim

Late last month, in Thompson v. North American Stainless, the Supreme Court  unanimously concluded that firing a worker’s fiancé in retaliation for a sex discrimination claim filed by the worker is itself unlawful retaliation under Title VII.  The anti-retaliation provision of Title VII prohibits any employer action that “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”  The Court had little trouble concluding that “a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.”  The Court also concluded that the plaintiff had the ability to sue under Title VII even though she herself was not fired.  This case is a good demonstration of the broad anti-retaliation protection provided by Title VII and similar employment laws.  (More coverage here.)

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Harkavy Presents 2009-10 Annual Supreme Court Review of Employment Law Cases

At the 26th Annual North Carolina/South Carolina Labor and Employment Law CLE held in Asheville, North Carolina, Jonathan Harkavy will present his 2009-10 annual review of the Supreme Court’s employment law cases.  His paper is entitled Supreme Court Employment Law Decisions, 2009 Term.

Introduction: The 2009 Term of the Supreme Court of the United States illustrated in unmistakable fashion the central role that workplace regulation plays in the lives of our citizens. The Court’s determination of a broad range of employment-related issues maintained its focus on employment law that began several terms ago. Not only do this term’s decisions affect a variety of policies and rules applicable to workers, employers and benefit providers, but the Roberts Court’s unabashed interest in doctrinal development, revealed by a deeper look at its decisions, also is reshaping the employment relationship itself and altering how work-related disputes are to be resolved.  Read more…

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Supreme Court Rules on Arbitration Issues for Unions and Employees in Two Cases

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions concerning whether particular issues had to be decided by an arbitrator or in federal court.  One care arose in the traditional area of labor arbitration between companies and unions; the second arose in the ever-growing area of employer-imposed arbitration agreements on regular employees.

In the first, Granite Rock v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Court ruled for the company, as ScotusBlog describes:

The parties had reached a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), but they disagreed about both when the CBA was formed and who should decide that question.  Today the Court, in an opinion by Justice Thomas, held that a court, rather than an arbitrator, should decide when the CBA was formed.  The Court explained that under the CBA, arbitration is required only when a dispute “arise[s] under” the agreement – which a dispute over when the CBA was formed does not.  The Court also held that the lower court properly declined to recognize a new federal common-law cause of action against the parent international union, which – according to the employer – tortiously interfered with the CBA.

In the second, Rent-a-Center v. Jackson, the Court sided with the employer, and held that the issue of unconscionability (a challenge to whether the arbitration agreement is valid in the first place), was to be decided by the arbitrator, as Workplace Prof Blog describes:

The Court held the issue was governed by the separability doctrine of Prima Paint: an arbitration agreement is assailable only if the arbitration agreement itselfnot the overall agreement of which the arbitration is a part — is assailable on state-contract law grounds.  So far, so good for Jackson — until today, this separability doctrine has been applied only when an arbitration agreement was part of a broader (“container”) agreement that was not related to arbitration — e.g., an arbitration provision in a consulting-services contract or in a larger employment contract.  Jackson’s unconscionability argument was directed squarely at his arbitration agreement.

Today, however, the Court extended Prima Paint to hold that the arbitration agreement itself can be the container contract, and that unconscionability arguments must be directed toward specific provisions of the arbitration agreement.  Jackson’s unconscionability arguments, the Court held, were directed at the arbitration agreement generally, and therefore could not be grounds for voiding the arbitration agreement as a whole.

Read the whole post for its insightful analysis of how the Court erred, once again stretching the law to give a victory to employers over employees.

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Supreme Court Rules on 2-Member Labor Board and Workplace Privacy

Two labor and employment decisions were released by the U.S. Supreme Court this past week.  In the first, City of Ontario v. Quon, the Court unanimously held (with Scalia concurring separately) that the government employer’s search of employee text messages was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  Unlike private employers, public employers are constrained (somewhat) by the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions on searches and seizures in the workplace.  In this case, the city got a private company to release the full text messages of police officers because of their overuse of the texting plan.  Several messages were inappropriate and resulted in employee discipline.  Based on these particular facts, the Court found the search lawful, though it declined to articulate broader standards for public employer searches, especially of new electronic media.  More analysis found here and here.

In the second case, New Process Steel v. NLRB, the Court resolved the circuit split regarding whether the National Labor Relations Board could lawfully act with a two-member quorum because the three vacancies on the board had gone unfilled for so long.  A 5-4 majority (Stevens surprisingly joining 4 conservatives) rejected the Board’s argument, and held that the NLRA required 3 members to act.  The hundreds of decisions issued by the two-member board will probably have to be re-reviewed, though one hopes this could be expedited now that two of the vacancies have been filled by President Obama.  Board decisions can take a long time even extra without this delay, often to the detriment of workers and unions seeking to organize and bargain.  More analysis is here and here.

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Two Employment Decisions from the Supreme Court

On May 24, the Supreme Court issued two employment-related opinions.  The first, Lewis v. Chicago, concerned the filing deadline for disparate impact discrimination cases under Title VII.  The black firefighter plaintiffs in the case sought to challenge a written test used for determining promotions.  The question is whether their statute of limitations began running when the test was scored, or when the test results were actually used to determine promotion decisions.  Reversing the Seventh Circuit, the Court unanimously held (Scalia writing) that it was the latter because it was the use of the test results that could constitute an “employment practice” challengable under Title VII.  The case likely will return to the trial court, where the plaintiffs had originally won before the appeals.  Additional coverage is here.

The second case, Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co., concerns when plaintiffs in ERISA actions can receive attorneys’ fees for succeeding in their case.  ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) is the statue that governs employee benefits plans.  In this case, the plaintiff challenged the insurance company’s denial of her long-term disability benefits, and after a court found she would likely prevail, the insurance company awarded her the benefits.

In a nearly unanimous opinion (Thomas writing) reversing the Fourth Circuit, the Court held that a party who seeks to recover attorney’s fees in an ERISA case does not need to be a “prevailing party.”  Instead, a court may award fees and costs under the statute if the claimant has achieved “some degree of success on the merits.”  Thus, the trial court here was correct in awarding the plaintiff attorneys’ fees for basically succeeding in obtaining her benefits.  More coverage here and here.

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