Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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In 2006, Mlsna was hired by Union Pacific, as a conductor. Union Pacific was aware of Mlsna’s hearing impairment. In 2012 the Federal Railroad Administration implemented regulations to ensure that train conductors possessed hearing acuity, and to confirm that railroads appropriately protected their employees’ hearing, 49 C.F.R. 242.105(c). Union Pacific had Mlsna’s hearing tested several different ways. Mlsna passed the hearing acuity test only when he relied on his hearing aids with no additional hearing protection. Later Mlsna was retested with the same results. Union Pacific decided it could not recertify Mlsna to work as a conductor. When he wore hearing aids and passed the hearing acuity requirement he was in violation of Union Pacific’s hearing conservation policy, which required additional hearing protection; when he complied with that policy by wearing the protection, he could not pass the hearing acuity test. Mlsna proposed he use specific custom‐made hearing protection. Union Pacific rejected his proposal because that device did not have a factory‐issued or laboratory‐tested noise reduction rating, as required by the regulation. Mlsna’s employment was terminated.Mlsna sued, alleging discrimination based on his hearing disability. The district court granted the railroad summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit reversed. Issues of fact exist as to whether wearing hearing protection is an essential function of Mlsna’s work as a conductor, as well as whether reasonable accommodations for the conductor were properly considered. View "Mlsna v. Union Pacific Railroad Co." on Justia Law

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Marshall worked at the Indiana Department of Corrections for over 20 years. He received good reviews and promotions. He identified as homosexual. He reached the rank of Internal Affairs Investigator. In 2015, he was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Warden Brown issued a written reprimand. In 2016, he attended a law enforcement conference in Indianapolis. A sheriff from another county complained that Marshall became intoxicated at the conference and behaved inappropriately. Marshall denies the allegations. Later that month, Marshall and others confronted Storm—a subordinate directly under Marshall’s supervision—about Storm’s unethical disclosure of confidential investigation materials. The next day, Storm accused Marshall of sexually harassing him twice outside of work. Regional Director Osburn decided to terminate Marshall. At a meeting before the termination, someone said they should be prepared for Marshall to file a complaint with the EEOC. Osburn terminated Marshall and demoted Storm.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of Marshall’s claims of discrimination based on sexual-orientation discrimination and retaliation. Marshall’s case falters for lack of a similarly situated comparator; there were legitimate issues about whether he was meeting expectations. Marshall’s exposure of Storm’s breach of confidentiality is not protected by Title VII; retaliation for the exposure cannot be Title VII retaliation. View "Marshall v. Indiana Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Demkovich was hired in 2012 as the music director at St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church. Demkovich is gay, overweight, and suffers from diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Demkovich claims Reverend Dada subjected him to a hostile work environment based on his sexual orientation and his disabilities. After Demkovich married his partner, Reverend Dada demanded Demkovich’s resignation because his marriage violated Church teachings. Demkovich refused. Reverend Dada fired him. Demkovich filed hostile environment claims under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act.The Seventh Circuit declined to extend the constitutional "ministerial" exemption to categorically bar all hostile environment discrimination claims by ministerial employees where there is no challenge to tangible employment actions like hiring and firing. The court reasoned that the First Amendment does not bar those same ministerial employees from bringing contract and tort claims against their employers and supervisors, nor does it bar enforcement of criminal laws arising from the mistreatment of those same employees. Religious employers’ control over tangible employment actions—hiring, firing, promoting, deciding compensation, job assignments, and the like—provides ample protection for the free exercise of religion. The First Amendment does not require complete immunity from the sometimes horrific abuse that a bright-line rule would protect. View "Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish" on Justia Law

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Bell employees participated in a benefit plan, completely funded by contributions from the members of about 69 unions. The plan is administered by a Board of Trustees, governed by Trust Indenture documents that provide that plan members must contribute a fixed amount unless a member’s union has set a different contribution amount. In 2008, Bell’s union voted to increase its members’ contributions from 6% to 8% of their weekly wages. In 2014, the Trustees revealed that the plan’s financial health was deteriorating. Bell employees unsuccessfully petitioned the union to reduce their compelled-contribution rate. In 2016, Bell's collective-bargaining contract expired. During negotiations, the employees again unsuccessfully requested that the union reduce their required contribution rate. Other members of the union, working for a different employer, were either contributing at lower rates or not contributing; they were originally part of a different union that did not participate in the plan. Contract re-negotiations were unsuccessful. The employees lost certain benefits that are available only to active contributors to the plan.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a suit under 29 U.S.C. 1104(a)(1)(D). The Trustees’ action, interpretation of the Trust Indenture, was not a breach of fiduciary duty. The Indenture can be reasonably interpreted as permitting different segments within a union to contribute to the plan at different levels. Even if the Union controlled the amount of revenue coming into the plan, it did not act as fiduciary but as a settlor. View "Bator v. District Council 4, Graphic Communications Conference" on Justia Law

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Truck drivers brought individual, collective, and class action claims against CTS, their former employer, for failing to provide overtime pay. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires overtime pay for any employee who works more than 40 hours in a workweek. 29 U.S.C. 207(a)(1). The statute exempts employees who are subject to the Secretary of Transportation’s jurisdiction under the Motor Carrier Act: It is dangerous for drivers to spend too many hours behind the wheel, and “a requirement of pay that is higher for overtime service than for regular service tends to … encourage employees to seek” overtime work. Under 49 U.S.C. 13501(1)(A), drivers need not actually drive in interstate commerce to fall within the Secretary’s jurisdiction if they are employed by a carrier that “has engaged in interstate commerce and that the driver could reasonably have been expected to make one of the carrier’s interstate runs.”The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of CTS, finding that the plaintiffs could be expected to drive any of the CTS routes. While some of the plaintiffs’ runs may have been purely local, the sheer volume of the interstate commerce through these facilities, combined with the fact that the plaintiffs were assigned to their duties indiscriminately, demonstrates that the plaintiffs had a reasonable chance of being called upon to make some drives that were part of a continuous interstate journey. View "Burlaka v. Contract Transport Services LLC" on Justia Law

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Many years ago, a class of plaintiffs sued, alleging that the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County was engaging in unlawful political patronage in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. In 1972, the Clerk and the plaintiffs entered into a consent decree that prohibited the Clerk from discriminating against the office’s employees for political reasons; in 1983, a separate judgment extended that prohibition to hiring practices. Litigation has continued. In 2018, a magistrate judge appointed a special master to monitor the Clerk’s compliance. The special master sought to observe the conduct of the Clerk’s office managers at employee grievance meetings. The employees’ union sent the special master a cease-and-desist letter purporting to bar her from the room.The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment clarifying that the 2018 supplemental relief order authorized the special master to observe the grievance meetings. The union—which was not a party to the suit and did not seek to become one—filed a memorandum opposing the motion, arguing that the 1972 consent decree did not provide a basis for the supplemental relief order and that the special master’s presence violated Illinois labor law and the union’s collective bargaining agreement. The magistrate agreed with the plaintiffs. The Seventh Circuit affirmed without addressing the merits of the union’s argument. Party status is a jurisdictional requirement. View "Shakman v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters" on Justia Law

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Morris worked for nine years as a train conductor for BNSF. The company fired him after he committed two speeding infractions during a single shift on a train carrying hazardous chemicals and failed to follow company rules requiring self-reporting of the violations. Morris, who is African American, invoked Title VII, 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1), and sued to challenge his termination, alleging that BNSF punished him more severely than non-black employees who committed similar safety violations. A jury found in his favor. Morris was awarded $531,292 in back pay, $137,450 in front pay, $275,000 in compensatory damages and punitive damages of $370,000The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges to the viability of Morris’s theory of discrimination, the sufficiency of his evidence, discovery rulings, and remedies. Morris introduced comprehensible and detailed evidence about how other employees were treated after committing safety violations. Although the supervisor responsible for any race-based discrimination did not make the termination decision, that supervisor’s decision to channel Morris down the path of formal discipline was based on race. The district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to order reinstatement. View "Morris v. BNSF Railway Co." on Justia Law

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Dunn County Sergeant Kurtzhals threatened physical violence against one of his fellow officers, Deputy Rhead. The Sheriff’s Office put him on temporary paid administrative leave and ordered him to undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation. Kurtzhals, believing that his supervisors took this action because they knew that Kurtzhals has a history of PTSD stemming from his military service, not because his conduct violated the County’s Workplace Violence Policy and implicated public safety, sued for employment discrimination, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. 12112. The district court concluded that no reasonable jury could find that Kurtzhals’s PTSD was the “but for” cause of Dunn County’s action or that it was plainly unreasonable for Kurtzhals’s superiors to believe that a fitness-for-duty examination was warranted, and granted the county summary judgment.The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Kurtzhals had no evidence to support his claim of pretext; there is no evidence that his supervisors knew about Kurtzhals’s PTSD. Contrary to Kurtzhals’s argument that he and Rhead acted in a comparable fashion and should have been treated similarly, the record reflects that only Kurtzhals explicitly threatened physical violence. Rhead may have behaved in an intimidating fashion towards Kurtzhals, but their behavior was not identical. View "Kurtzhals v. County of Dunn" on Justia Law

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Pierri began working for Medline in 2011. In 2015, Pierri’s grandfather fell ill. Pierri's supervisor, Tyler, allowed Pierri to work 10‐hour shifts four days a week in order to take his grandfather on weekly hospital trips. Six months later, Tyler told Pierri to return to five‐day, eight-hour shifts. Tyler offered to let Pierri work Tuesday through Saturday, but Pierri wanted to attend school on Saturdays. Pierri began using one day per week of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. Tyler harassed him and refused to assign him research and development work, on which Pierri’s bonus depended. Pierri complained to Medline’s HR department; the harassment continued. Citing stress, Pierri started full‐time FMLA leave in March 2016. In September, Medline then approved him for disability leave. In March 2017, Medline contacted Pierri’s attorney to find out whether he planned on returning. Pierri did not respond. Medline terminated his employment.Pierri had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and then filed suit, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. 12112(b)(4), for his association with his ailing grandfather, and retaliation 42 U.S.C. 12203. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Medline. Pierri failed to present material facts in dispute that would show that Medline discriminated against him for his association with his grandfather or that he suffered an adverse employment action. Pierri’s failure to respond about returning to work caused his termination, not retaliation for his complaints. View "Pierri v. Medline Industries, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2009 Allen-Noll, who is African-American, was hired by Madison Area Technical College as a nursing instructor. Beginning in 2010, Allen-Noll was criticized for her teaching methods. Students complained that she was “rude, condescending, and defensive” in class. In 2011 complaints about Allen-Noll resurfaced from students and the tutor assigned to her class, who criticized Allen-Noll for not timely posting grades and making study guides available and for failing too many students. Allen-Noll’s clinical class also complained that she failed to follow the rules on cell phone use and did not complete paperwork. Allen-Noll was assigned a faculty mentor. Allen-Noll filed a complaint with the College, alleging discrimination and harassment based on her skin color, Complaints about Allen-Noll’s teaching continued. Other faculty said she would not participate in team meetings or volunteer for the extra service expected of full-time faculty. When her teaching contract was not renewed, Allen-Noll sued, alleging racial discrimination and harassment. After discovery, the college moved for summary judgment, but Allen-Noll failed to follow the court’s procedures. The record was largely established by the defendants’ submissions, and the college prevailed. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding the appeal frivolous and granting the college’s request to sanction Allen-Noll and her lawyer. View "Allen-Noll v. Madison Area Technical College" on Justia Law