Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Signode assumed an obligation to pay health-care benefits to a group of retired steelworkers and their families. Signode then exercised its right to terminate the underlying benefits agreement and also stopped providing the promised benefits to the retired steelworkers and their families, despite contractual language providing that benefits would not be “terminated … notwithstanding the expiration” of the underlying agreement. The retirees and the union filed suit under the Labor-Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. 185, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(1)(B). The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s entry of a permanent injunction, ordering Signode to reinstate the benefits. The agreement provided for vested benefits that would survive the agreement’s termination. While there is no longer a presumption in favor of lifetime vesting, the court applied ordinary contract law interpretation rules and concluded that the agreement unambiguously provided retirees with vested lifetime health-care benefits. Even if the agreement were ambiguous, industry usage and the behavior of the parties here provide enough evidence to support vesting such that resolution of any ambiguity in favor of the plaintiffs as a matter of law would still be correct. View "Stone v. Signode Industrial Group LLC" on Justia Law

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Ford had worked as a Deputy Sheriff for several years when another driver crashed into her patrol vehicle, severely injuring Ford’s dominant right hand. She has not regained use of her hand and suffers sometimes-debilitating pain. The Sheriff’s Office placed Ford on light-duty tasks for a year. Ford physically could not resume her work as a deputy and was purportedly told that she could either accept a civilian position with a pay cut, resign, or be fired. Ford requested Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. 12101 accommodations: a hands-free telephone, voice-activated software, an ergonomic work station, the ability to take breaks when needed for pain, and training for her supervisors. Each request, except the voice-activated software, was granted. Ford accepted a civilian position. Ford alleges that she then suffered three years of disability harassment. The Office transferred two workers, of whom Ford complained. Ford had multiple complaints about other co-workers. The Office switched Ford from a fixed to a rotating schedule. Ford unsuccessfully requested to be returned to a fixed schedule, saying that the rotating schedule exacerbated her complex regional pain syndrome, attaching a physician’s note to that effect. Ford unsuccessfully applied four times to be transferred or promoted before she secured a transfer to the violent-offender registry, where she continues to work. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the rejection of most of Ford’s discrimination claims on summary judgment. A district court may properly separate claims based on specific adverse employment actions, retaliation, denial of reasonable accommodation, and hostile work environment. On her demotion claim, Ford failed to present evidence that some vacant job existed closer to her original job, rendering the visitation clerk demotion unreasonable. There were no material disputes of fact as to the promotion decisions. View "Ford v. Marion County Sheriff's Office" on Justia Law

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In 2010-2016, Valdivia worked for the District and received excellent performance evaluations. In 2016, she began reporting to Sisi. Valdivia began experiencing insomnia, weight loss, uncontrollable crying, racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, and exhaustion. Valdivia went into work late and left work early because she could not control her crying. She told Sisi about her symptoms and asked for a 10‐month position, instead of her 12‐month job. Sisi declined. After a third conversation, Sisi told Valdivia that she needed to decide whether she was staying. Valdivia sought out Sisi several more times and eventually submitted her resignation. Valdivia immediately regretted her decision and went to Sisi’s home, crying and asking to rescind her resignation. Sisi denied that request. Valdivia's physician noted depression. The next day, Valdivia began her new job; she was able to work for only four days before quitting. She was hospitalized and treated for anxiety and severe major depressive disorder. A psychiatrist later testified that it would be “difficult for anybody to work” with her symptoms. She sued under the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. 2601−2654, claiming that the District interfered with her rights by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job‐protected leave. A jury awarded her $12,000 in damages. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of the District’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. The District has not met the high bar to set aside a jury verdict. The District had notice of Valdivia’s problem through her conduct and direct reports. View "Valdivia v. Township High School District 214" on Justia Law

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McCurry worked at an Illinois warehouse owned by Mars, the candy maker, and operated by Kenco, a management firm. In 2015 Kenco lost its contract with Mars and laid off its Mars employees, including McCurry. A year later, she filed two “rambling” pro se complaints accusing Kenco, Mars, and several of her supervisors of discriminating against her based on her race, sex, age, and disability and claiming that Kenco and Mars conspired to violate her civil rights. The district court dismissed some of the claims. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the rest. McCurry’s response violated Local Rule 7.1(D)(2)(b)(6), under which the failure to properly respond to a numbered fact in an opponent’s statement of facts “will be deemed an admission of the fact.” Where McCurry did respond, she frequently simply stated that she “objected” to the statement without stating a basis for her objection. The judge accepted the defendants’ factual submissions as admitted and entered judgment in their favor. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. McCurry did not challenge the judge’s decision to enforce the local summary-judgment rule. As a result, the uncontested record contains no evidence to support a viable discrimination or conspiracy claim. The court called the appeal “utterly frivolous and McCurry’s monstrosity of an appellate brief” incoherent, and ordered her appellate lawyer to show cause why he should not be sanctioned or otherwise disciplined. View "McCurry v. Kenco Logistic Services, LLC" on Justia Law

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Mooney, an Illinois public-school teacher, is not a member of IEA, the union that serves as the exclusive representative of her employee unit in collective bargaining with the school district. The District deducted from her paycheck and sent to the union a fair-share fee that contributed to the costs incurred by the union. The Illinois Public Relations Act and 1977 Supreme Court precedent, Abood, authorized the arrangement. In its 2018 Janus decision, the Supreme Court overruled Abood, holding that compulsory fair share fee arrangements violate the First Amendment rights of persons who would prefer not to associate with the union. State employers in Illinois ceased deducting fair-share fees from the paychecks of nonmembers of public-sector unions. Mooney filed a putative class action (42 U.S.C. 1983) for the fees that had previously been deducted from her pay. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Mooney’s claims, joining the consensus across the country. Unions that collected fair-share fees prior to Janus, in accordance with state law and Abood, are entitled to assert a good-faith defense to section 1983 liability. The court rejected Mooney’s argument that she was not seeking damages and that an equitable demand for restitution cannot be defeated on good-faith grounds. The gravamen of Mooney’s complaint is that her First Amendment rights were violated by the fair-share requirement; her claim lies in law rather than equity. View "Mooney v. Illinois Education Association" on Justia Law

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Janus was employed by an Illinois agency. A collective bargaining agreement designated AFSCME as the exclusive representative of Janus’s employee unit. Janus exercised his right not to join the union. He objected to withholding $44.58 from his paycheck each month to compensate AFSCME. The Illinois Public Labor Relations Act established an exclusive representation scheme and authorized collective bargaining agreements that included a fair‐share fee provision to compensate the union for costs incurred in collective bargaining and representing employees, including non-members. Lower courts rejected Janus’s argument that the Supreme Court’s 1977 Abood decision, which upheld “fair share” schemes was wrongly decided. The Supreme Court overruled Abood in 2018, holding that requiring nonmembers to pay fair‐share fees and “subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern” violated the First Amendment. The Seventh Circuit subsequently rejected Janus’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim for damages equivalent to the fair share fees he had paid. The case presented a First Amendment issue, not one under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. The Court’s analysis focused on whether requiring a union to continue to represent those who do not pay a fair‐share fee would be sufficiently inequitable to establish a compelling interest, not whether requiring nonmembers to contribute to the unions would be inequitable. Nor did the Court hold that Janus has an unqualified constitutional right to accept the benefits of union representation without paying. Its focus was on freedom of expression. The Court also did not specify whether its decision should apply retroactively. The statute on which defendants relied was considered constitutional for 41 years. View "Janus v. American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees" on Justia Law

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Shell began working at Chicago’s Corwith Rail Yard in 1977. By 2010, BSNF owned Corwith Yard; Shell worked for BNSF's contractor. BNSF assumed the railyard’s operations itself, terminating the employment of those who worked for the contractor. BNSF invited those employees to apply for new positions. Shell applied to work as an intermodal equipment operator, a “safety-sensitive” position, which required the employee to climb on railcars to insert and remove locking devices, drive trucks that move trailers, and operate cranes to load and unload containers. BNSF extended a conditional offer of employment, requiring that Shell pass a medical evaluation. Shell had a body-mass index of 47.5. BNSF does not hire applicants for safety-sensitive positions if their BMI is 40 or greater (class III obesity). BNSF believes that someone with class III obesity could unexpectedly experience a debilitating health episode and lose consciousness while operating dangerous equipment. BNSF informed Shell of his disqualification but told him that his application could be reconsidered if he lost at least 10% of his weight and maintained the weight loss for at least six months. Shell sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court denied BNSF’s motion for summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit reversed. With only proof that BNSF refused to hire him because of a fear that he would develop an impairment, Shell has not established that BNSF regarded him as having a disability or that he is otherwise disabled. View "Shell v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co." on Justia Law

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The Union and the NECA Electrical Contractors Association entered into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) providing health, welfare, and pension benefits for union workers. The Funds operate as trusts for these benefits. Employers, who are members of NECA, self-report the benefits they owe. Veterans Electric participated in NECA, assented to the CBA, and contributed to the Funds for its union employees. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1132(g), governs benefit plans between labor unions and multiemployer associations. The Funds attempted to audit Veterans’ payroll records. Veterans only provided records for union employees, which accounted for about half of the total reported wages. The Funds requested payroll information for non-union employees. Veterans refused, contending that the records were outside the scope of a proper audit under the CBA. The Funds filed suit. During discovery, Veterans provided the additional payroll information. The district court granted Veterans summary judgment, limiting the scope of the trustees’ audit authority. The Seventh Circuit reversed. Under the CBA, the trustees’ authority to audit payroll records includes “all employees regardless of membership or non-membership in the Union.” In light of the ERISA fiduciary duties imposed on union trustees and the authority under the Trust Agreements, the Funds had the right to conduct random audits on employer payroll records. View "Electrical Construction Industry Prefunding Credit Reimbursement Program v. Veterans Electric, LLC" on Justia Law

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Daza worked for the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) as a geologist for 23 years. In 2011, Daza expressed concerns that another employee was denied promotion because of his political affiliation. In 2013, Daza complained about a commissioner’s misuse of political office. About a month later Daza received his first reprimand, for refusing to answer calls after hours. In 2014, he again complained about the treatment of another employee. A supervisor complained about Daza’s “professionalism.” Daza had multiple disagreements with supervisors and was ultimately terminated “because his behavior consistently defied INDOT culture and expectations.” Daza filed suit, alleging that his firing was unlawful. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants, rejecting claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 that alleged violation of Daza’s First Amendment rights by discriminating and retaliating against him for his political activities and affiliation. Daza presented a long string of facts occurring over four years but presented no evidence that his alleged political activities or affiliation motivated his firing. The evidence actually shows that management had taken issue with Daza’s conduct for years, and the decision to fire him was made after his offensive comments during a training session. View "Daza v. Indiana" on Justia Law

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School Superintendent Reichhart granted an adult student permission to possess cigarettes on school grounds. Ulrey, the assistant principal, disagreed with that decision. Without approaching Reichhart first, Ulrey called the president of the school board, who emailed Reichhart to express concern about his decision. Reichhart rebuked Ulrey for going over his head, threatening to reprimand her formally. She apologized. Three months later, she resigned during a meeting with Reichhart. Ulrey filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against Reichhart and the school board, claiming that Reichhart violated her First Amendment rights by retaliating for her speech about a student discipline issue and that the defendants coerced her to resign, depriving her of her property interest in her job without due process of law. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Ulrey spoke about the discipline issue in her capacity as an employee, so the First Amendment did not protect her speech. Ulrey failed to present sufficient evidence sufficient that her resignation was involuntary. The test is not whether the employee was happy about resigning or even whether the employer asked for the resignation. Ulrey offered to resign because Reichhart’s “vibes” and “physical demeanor” communicated his desire to fire her. That is not enough to treat the defendants as if they had denied her the extensive procedural protections available if she had wanted to contest a possible termination. View "Ulrey v. Reichhart" on Justia Law