Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
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The case involves Bristol SL Holdings, Inc., the successor-in-interest to Sure Haven, Inc., a defunct drug rehabilitation and mental health treatment center, and Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company and Cigna Behavioral Health, Inc. Bristol alleged that Sure Haven's calls to Cigna verifying out-of-network coverage and seeking authorization to provide health services created independent contractual obligations. Cigna, however, denied payment based on fee-forgiving, a practice prohibited by the health plans. Bristol brought state law claims for breach of contract and promissory estoppel against Cigna.The district court initially dismissed Bristol’s claims, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal, holding that Bristol had derivative standing to sue for unpaid benefits as Sure Haven’s successor-in-interest. On remand, the district court granted Cigna’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) preempted Bristol’s state law claims.On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision. The court held that Bristol’s state law claims were preempted by ERISA because they had both a “reference to” and an “impermissible connection with” the ERISA plans that Cigna administered. The court reasoned that Bristol’s claims were not independent of an ERISA plan because they concerned the denial of reimbursement to patients who were covered under such plans. The court also held that allowing liability on Bristol’s state law claims would interfere with nationally uniform plan administration, a central matter of plan administration. View "Bristol SL Holdings, Inc. v. Cigna Health and Life Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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The plaintiff, Rhita Bercy, filed a hostile work environment claim against her employer, the City of Phoenix, alleging a single course of conduct that continued over a period of nearly two years. She filed her bankruptcy petition within that two-year period. The claim was based on conduct that occurred both before and after she filed her bankruptcy petition. The parties agreed that a claim based on conduct before the petition, and any damages resulting from that conduct, belonged to the bankruptcy estate. The question was whether Bercy could recover damages on that claim for alleged harm arising from discriminatory conduct that occurred after she filed for bankruptcy.The United States District Court for the District of Arizona granted the City's motion for summary judgment, holding that Bercy lacked standing to pursue her claim. The court reasoned that because Bercy could have brought her claim at the time of her bankruptcy petition, and any subsequent damages were sufficiently rooted in prebankruptcy incidents, the entire claim belonged to the bankruptcy estate under 11 U.S.C. § 541(a)(1).On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court held that Bercy's hostile work environment claim was sufficiently rooted in the prebankruptcy past and thus belonged to the bankruptcy estate. Therefore, only the bankruptcy trustee had standing to sue on the claim. The court clarified that the Bankruptcy Code provides a “fresh start” to the debtor at discharge, but not “a continuing license to violate the law.” View "Bercy v. City of Phoenix" on Justia Law

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The plaintiff, Ronald Hittle, was the Fire Chief for the City of Stockton, California. He alleged that he was terminated from his position due to his religion, specifically his attendance at a religious leadership event. The City of Stockton, former City Manager Robert Deis, and former Deputy City Manager Laurie Montes were named as defendants. The City had hired an independent investigator, Trudy Largent, to investigate various allegations of misconduct against Hittle. Largent's report sustained almost all of the allegations, including Hittle's use of city time and a city vehicle to attend a religious event, his failure to properly report his time off, potential favoritism of certain Fire Department employees based on a financial conflict of interest not disclosed to the City, and endorsement of a private consultant's business in violation of City policy.The United States District Court for the Eastern District of California granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The court found that Hittle failed to present sufficient direct evidence of discriminatory animus in the defendants' statements and the City's notice of intent to remove him from City service. The court also found that Hittle failed to present sufficient specific and substantial circumstantial evidence of religious animus by the defendants.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court held that employment discrimination claims under Title VII and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act are analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. The court concluded that Hittle failed to present sufficient direct evidence of discriminatory animus in the defendants' statements and the City's notice of intent to remove him from City service. Hittle also failed to present sufficient specific and substantial circumstantial evidence of religious animus by the defendants. The court found that the district court's grant of summary judgment in the defendants' favor was appropriate where the defendants' legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for firing Hittle were sufficient to rebut his evidence of discrimination, and he failed to persuasively argue that these non-discriminatory reasons were pretextual. View "HITTLE V. CITY OF STOCKTON" on Justia Law

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Yuriria Diaz, a former employee of Macy's West Stores, Inc., filed a lawsuit under the California Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) for alleged violations of California's labor code. Macy's appealed the district court's order compelling arbitration of all Diaz's claims. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's order compelling arbitration of Diaz's individual PAGA claims, but vacated the order to the extent it compels arbitration of her non-individual claims.Previously, the district court had compelled arbitration of all Diaz's claims, interpreting the arbitration agreement between Diaz and Macy's to include non-individual PAGA claims. The court denied Diaz's request for a stay and closed the case, stating there were no remaining claims before the court.The Ninth Circuit concluded that it had jurisdiction to review the district court's order as a final decision with respect to arbitration. The court found that at the time of contracting, the parties consented only to arbitration of individual claims relating to Diaz's own employment. The agreement's language was strongly indicative of an intent to exclude any amalgamation of employees’ claims—including non-individual PAGA claims—from arbitration.The court rejected Macy's request that the district court on remand be instructed to dismiss the non-individual claims because under a recent California Supreme Court decision, those claims cannot be dismissed. The court remanded with instruction to treat the non-arbitrable non-individual claims consistent with the California Supreme Court’s decision, anticipating that the parties will, per their agreement, request a stay with respect to those claims. View "Diaz v. Macy’s West Stores, Inc." on Justia Law

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The case involves pension plan participants, Evelyn Wilson and Stephen Bafford, who alleged that the plan administrator, the Administrative Committee of the Northrop Grumman Pension Plan, violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by not providing pension benefit statements automatically or on request, and by providing inaccurate pension benefit statements prior to their retirements. The district court initially dismissed the case, but on appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part and vacated in part the dismissal, allowing the plaintiffs to file amended complaints.Upon remand, the plaintiffs filed amended complaints, but the district court dismissed their claims again. The plaintiffs appealed once more to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit held that the lower court's prior mandate did not preclude the plaintiffs from pleading their claim for violation of ERISA on remand. The court also held that the plaintiffs stated a viable claim under ERISA by alleging that the plan administrator provided substantially inaccurate pension benefit statements.The court rejected the administrator’s argument that there were no remedies available for the ERISA violations the plaintiffs alleged. As a result, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "BAFFORD V. ADMINISTRATIVE CMTE. OF THE NORTHROP GRUMMAN PLAN" on Justia Law

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In February 2022, Workers United sought to represent 90 employees at a Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle. Due to rising COVID-19 cases, the Regional Director ordered a mail-ballot election, which took place in April 2022. Starbucks refused to recognize and bargain with the union, arguing that the Regional Director should have ordered an in-person election. The Regional Director overruled Starbucks' objection and certified the election results. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that Starbucks' refusal to recognize and bargain with the union constituted unfair labor practices in violation of Section 8(a)(5) of the National Labor Relations Act.The NLRB's decision was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Starbucks argued that the court lacked jurisdiction over the enforcement application because the NLRB had severed the question of whether to adopt a compensatory remedy. The court rejected this argument, holding that the NLRB's order was final and reviewable under 29 U.S.C. § 160(e).Starbucks also claimed that the Regional Director abused his discretion by ordering a mail-ballot election instead of an in-person one. The court rejected this argument as well, holding that the Regional Director had correctly applied the NLRB's own law in deciding to hold a mail-ballot election. The court affirmed the NLRB's finding that Starbucks had violated Section 8(a)(5) by refusing to bargain. The court granted the NLRB's application for enforcement of its order directing Starbucks to recognize and bargain with the union. View "NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD V. SIREN RETAIL CORPORATION DBA STARBUCKS" on Justia Law

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A scientist with physical disabilities, Dr. Andrew Mattioda, sued his employer, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. He alleged that he suffered a hostile work environment after informing his supervisors of his disabilities and requesting upgraded airline tickets for work travel. He also claimed he was discriminated against due to his disability by being passed over for a promotion.The United States District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed Dr. Mattioda’s hostile-work-environment claim and granted summary judgment in favor of NASA on his disability-discrimination claim. The court concluded that Dr. Mattioda failed to allege a plausible causal nexus between the claimed harassment and his disabilities. It also held that NASA provided a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for not selecting Dr. Mattioda for an available senior scientist position.On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Dr. Mattioda’s hostile-work-environment claim, affirming that a disability-based harassment claim is available under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act. The court held that Dr. Mattioda plausibly alleged a hostile-work-environment claim based on his disability. However, the court affirmed the district court’s order granting summary judgment for NASA on the disability-discrimination claim, agreeing that NASA had provided a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for not selecting Dr. Mattioda for the senior scientist position. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "MATTIODA V. NELSON" on Justia Law

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The plaintiff, Ryan S., filed a class action lawsuit against UnitedHealth Group, Inc. and its subsidiaries (collectively, “UnitedHealthcare”) under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). He alleged that UnitedHealthcare applies a more stringent review process to benefits claims for outpatient, out-of-network mental health and substance use disorder (“MH/SUD”) treatment than to otherwise comparable medical/surgical treatment. Ryan S. asserted that by doing so, UnitedHealthcare violated the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (“Parity Act”), breached its fiduciary duty, and violated the terms of his plan.The district court granted UnitedHealthcare’s motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) based primarily on its conclusions that Ryan S. failed to allege that his claims had been “categorically” denied and insufficiently identified analogous medical/surgical claims that he had personally submitted and UnitedHealthcare had processed more favorably.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part the district court’s judgment. The panel concluded that Ryan S. adequately stated a claim for a violation of the Parity Act. The panel explained that an ERISA plan can violate the Parity Act in different ways, including by applying, as Ryan S. alleged here, a more stringent internal process to MH/SUD claims than to medical/surgical claims. The panel also concluded that Ryan S. alleged a breach of fiduciary duty. However, as Ryan S. failed to identify any specific plan terms that the alleged practices would violate, the panel affirmed the dismissal of his claims based on a violation of the terms of his plan. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Ryan S. v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc." on Justia Law

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The plaintiff, Adan Ortiz, worked for two companies, GXO Logistics Supply Chain, Inc., and Randstad Inhouse Services, LLC, both of which were his former employers. Ortiz's role involved handling goods in a California warehouse facility operated by GXO. The goods, primarily Adidas products, were received from mostly international locations and stored at the warehouse for several days to a few weeks before being shipped to customers and retailers in various states.Ortiz filed a class action lawsuit against his former employers alleging various violations of California labor law. The defendants moved to compel arbitration pursuant to an arbitration agreement in Ortiz's employment contract. Ortiz opposed this on the grounds that the agreement could not be enforced under federal or state law.The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part the district court's order denying the appellants' motion to compel arbitration. It concluded that Ortiz belonged to a class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce and was therefore exempted from the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The court reasoned that although Ortiz's duties were performed entirely within one state's borders, his role facilitated the continued travel of goods through an interstate supply chain, making him a necessary part of the flow of goods in interstate commerce. The court also rejected the argument that an employee must necessarily be employed by a transportation industry company to qualify for the transportation worker exemption. View "ORTIZ V. RANDSTAD INHOUSE SERVICES, LLC" on Justia Law

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This case concerns an employment discrimination action filed by Alyssa Jones against her former employer, Riot Hospitality Group and its owner-operator Ryan Hibbert. During discovery, Riot Hospitality Group discovered that Jones had deleted text messages exchanged with her coworkers and had also coordinated with witnesses to delete messages. In response, the District Court for the District of Arizona ordered Jones and other parties to hand over their phones for forensic analysis.However, Jones and her attorney failed to comply with multiple court orders to produce the relevant messages. Subsequently, Riot Hospitality Group filed a motion for terminating sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(e)(2), citing intentional spoliation of electronically stored information (ESI) by Jones.The court found ample evidence that Jones intentionally deleted relevant text messages and collaborated with witnesses to do the same. It concluded that Jones' actions impaired Riot Hospitality Group's ability to proceed with the trial and interfered with the rightful decision of the case. The court therefore dismissed the case with prejudice under Rule 37(e)(2) due to intentional spoliation of ESI by the plaintiff.The court's decision was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which found no abuse of discretion in the dismissal of the case or the district court's consideration of an expert report on the deletion of ESI.The appellate court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in ordering Jones and others to hand over their phones for forensic search, and in awarding attorneys’ fees and costs to Riot Hospitality Group. View "JONES V. RIOT HOSPITALITY GROUP LLC, ET AL" on Justia Law