This week we return to our Supreme Court Employment Law Watch. If you missed last week’s post on some of the cases, you can find it here. Last week we were just getting started. There’s more to do. So let’s look at some more cases to be heard by SCOTUS. Join The EmpLAWyerologist after the jump…
Picking up from last week, Tyson Foods v Bouaphakeo is scheduled for oral argument on November 10. Tyson employees claim they were not properly compensated for the time spent donning their personal protective equipment and working to their work sites. If enough of that time accumulates, time, it could bump them into Overtime Land. Now SCOTUS decided a donning and doffing case in Sandifer et al v US Steel Group (but that case involved a collective bargaining agreement which significantly impacted the ruling) and in 2005 in IBP Inc. vs. Alvarez et al and Tum et al. vs. Barber Foods Inc when it ruled that time spent donning PPE and walking to one’s work site was not compensable but time spent waiting to doff their PPE was compensable. So why did SCOTUS even agree to take this appeal? Many would argue that this case is more about class certification standards than employment law. The employees brought a class action law suit. The U.S. District Court accepted class certification and allowed the case to go forward as a class action lawsuit. Tyson appealed, arguing that there are too many factual differences among its purported members for it to meet class certification standards. Huh? Tyson argues that not all the employees were actually injured by the company’s actions, so they don’t have a right to recover money damages. If they don’t have a right to recover money damages (whereas other class members were, allegedly, injured by Tyson’s practices) they are not proper class members, and the class should be de-certified.
Now I know this may sound yawn-worthy to many of you, but there’s a point here. Class action lawsuits are very powerful remedies for employees and their attorneys. Class action lawsuits bring with them the possibility of mega-huge judgments or settlements. Individual lawsuits carry that possibility too, but to a much lesser degree. Individuals who have been wronged may have a right to sue, but the amount of money they stand to recover may be too small for a plaintiff’s attorney may not to take on contingency (i.e. a percentage of the judgment/settlement). Most employees do not have the money to pay legal fees out-of-pocket. See where this is going? If SCOTUS limits the circumstances under which a class of employees can be certified, it may get harder for employees to bring FLSA-related lawsuits–which lessens that particular threat to employers. That’s why employers and employees alike just might care about the results of this case.
In Green v. Brennan, to be heard on November 30, Mr. Marvin Green was denied a promotion to Postmaster in favor of a less qualified candidate who hadn’t even applied. Mr. Green complained, and alleged race discrimination. Soon thereafter, he was accused of mismanaging mail — and initially was suspended without pay. He was given the choice of taking a demotion, a $40,000 annual salary cut and a position 300 miles away, or resigning. Mr. Green signed an agreement on December 16, 2009, stipulating that he would resign. His resignation letter was dated February 9, 2010 and gave an effective resignation date of March 31. Mr. Green contacted the EEOC 41 days after the date of the resignation letter. He ultimately sued, alleging constructive discharge, race discrimination and retaliation. The time-limit for filing a constructive discharge claim is 45 days. The US District Court of Colorado found that the 45 days began to run from the date he signed the agreement on December 16 and found his claim time-barred. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, finding that the 45 days run from the employer’s last act of discrimination, and not the resignation. That is now the question before SCOTUS–and it highlights an important point: In addition to a statute of limitations’ length, you also need to know exactly when it begins to run, i.e. what is the event that starts the clock.
Gobeille v Liberty Mutual, to be heard on December 2, involves a self-insured employer’s health plan and reporting/database requirements by the State of Vermont. Liberty Mutual maintains it does not have to abide by Vermont’s requirements in this area, because Vermont’s laws are preempted by the Employee Income Retirement Security Act (ERISA). That is the question before SCOTUS. I reserve the right to discuss this case further after SCOTUS’ ruling.
Fisher v University of Texas at Austin. I know. SCOTUS decided this case in 2013–and this case involves Affirmative Action on the college campus and not in employment. SCOTUS decided that University of Texas did not apply the required strict-scrutiny review to its race-conscious admission process–and then sent the case back to the lower courts to review, using a strict-scrutiny standard. The Fifth Circuit, presumably applying that standard, again upheld the University’s admissions plan, and SCOTUS has again agreed to hear an appeal. While it’s not actually an employment case, federal contractors are also subject to Affirmative Action requirements. SCOTUS’s take on the degree to which universities can consider race in its decisions may be instructive for how it might view similar affirmative action efforts for employers.
Friedrich v. California Teachers’ Association will be heard sometime in 2016. As you may know, workers do not have to join public-sector unions. What if, however, the state requires the union to nonetheless bargain on behalf of the entire workforce? Workers still have to pay a fee, but only for bargaining services that benefit them. Workers are not supposed to be charged fees for services that used for political purposes. In this case, California teachers are accusing the California Teachers’ Association of doing exactly that. Should public-sector employees effectively be forced to fund political activities by unions if they disagree? SCOTUS will decide this issue sometime in 2016.
Finally Heffernen v City of Paterson will be heard sometime in 2016. SCOTUS will consider a police officer’s claim that he was demoted due to his political preferences in violation of his First Amendment rights. I reserve the right to talk more about this one after the ruling, too.
The EmpLAWyerologist will be watching for the results, so stay tuned!
Disclaimer: This post and all its contents are for educational/informational purposes only, are not intended as legal advice, do not create an attorney-client relationship, and are not intended to replace consultation with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people
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