Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Washington enacted a workers’ compensation law that applied only to Hanford site workers who were “engaged in the performance of work, either directly or indirectly, for the United States.” The Hanford site, once used to produce nuclear weapons, is undergoing decontamination. Most workers involved in the cleanup process are employed by private companies under contract with the federal government; a few are state employees, private employees, and federal employees. As compared to Washington’s general workers’ compensation scheme, the law made it easier for Hanford's federal contract workers to establish entitlement to workers’ compensation, thus increasing workers’ compensation costs for the federal government. The Ninth Circuit upheld the law as within the scope of a federal waiver of immunity, 40 U.S.C. 3172.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. Washington’s law facially discriminates against the federal government and its contractors; section 3172 does not clearly and unambiguously waive immunity from discriminatory state laws, so Washington’s law is unconstitutional. While section 3172(a) says that “[t]he state authority charged with enforcing and requiring compliance with the state workers’ compensation laws . . . may apply [those] laws to all land and premises in the State which the Federal Government owns,” and “to all projects, buildings, constructions, improvements, and property in the State and belonging to the Government, in the same way, and to the same extent as if the premises were under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State,” the waiver does not “clear[ly] and unambiguous[ly]” authorize a state to enact a discriminatory law that facially singles out the federal government for unfavorable treatment.The Court held that the case was not moot, despite Washington’s enactment of a new statute that, arguably, applies retroactively. View "United States v. Washington" on Justia Law

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California’s Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) authorizes any “aggrieved employee” to initiate an action against a former employer on behalf of himself and other current or former employees to obtain civil penalties that previously could have been recovered only by California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency. California precedent holds that a PAGA suit is a “representative action” in which the plaintiff sues as an “agent or proxy” of the state. Moriana filed a PAGA action against her former employer, Viking, alleging multiple violations with respect to herself and other employees. Moriana’s employment contract contained a mandatory arbitration agreement with a “Class Action Waiver,” providing that the parties could not bring any class, collective, or representative action under PAGA, and a severability clause. California courts denied Viking’s motion to compel arbitration.The Supreme Court reversed. The Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. 1 (FAA), preempts California precedent that precludes division of PAGA actions into individual and non-individual claims through an agreement to arbitrate. Viking was entitled to compel arbitration of Moriana’s individual claim. Moriana would then lack standing to maintain her non-individual claims in court.A PAGA action asserting multiple violations under California’s Labor Code affecting a range of different employees does not constitute “a single claim.” Nothing in the FAA establishes a categorical rule mandating enforcement of waivers of standing to assert claims on behalf of absent principals. PAGA’s built-in mechanism of claim joinder is in conflict with the FAA. State law cannot condition the enforceability of an agreement to arbitrate on the availability of a procedural mechanism that would permit a party to expand the scope of the anticipated arbitration by introducing claims that the parties did not jointly agree to arbitrate. View "Viking River Cruises, Inc. v. Moriana" on Justia Law

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Saxon, a Southwest Airlines ramp supervisor, frequently loads and unloads cargo alongside the ramp agents. Alleging that Southwest was failing to pay proper overtime wages to ramp supervisors, Saxon brought a putative class action under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Saxon’s employment contract required her to arbitrate wage disputes individually; she claimed that ramp supervisors were a “class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” exempt from the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. 1.The Supreme Court affirmed the Seventh Circuit, holding that the act of loading cargo onto a vehicle to be transported interstate is itself commerce according to the “ordinary, contemporary, common meaning” of the word. By referring to “workers” rather than “employees,” the FAA directs attention to “the performance of work” and the word “engaged” similarly emphasizes the actual work that class members typically carry out. Saxon is a member of a “class of workers” based on what she frequently does, physically loading and unloading cargo on and off airplanes, and not on what Southwest does generally. Exempted workers must at least play a direct and “necessary role in the free flow of goods” across borders. Cargo loaders exhibit this central feature of a transportation worker. View "Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon" on Justia Law

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The Secretary of Labor, through OSHA, enacted a vaccine mandate, to be enforced by employers. The mandate preempted contrary state laws and covered virtually all employers with at least 100 employees, with exemptions for employees who exclusively work remotely or outdoors. It required that covered workers receive a COVID–19 vaccine or obtain a medical test each week at their own expense, on their own time, and also wear a mask at work. Challenges were consolidated before the Sixth Circuit, which allowed OSHA’s rule to take effect.The Supreme Court stayed the rule. Applicants are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Secretary lacked the authority to impose the mandate. The rule is “a significant encroachment into the lives—and health—of a vast number of employees,” not plainly authorized by statute; 29 U.S.C. 655(b) empowers the Secretary to set workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures. Although COVID–19 is a risk in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most. COVID–19 spreads everywhere that people gather. Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization. The vaccine mandate is unlike typical OSHA workplace regulations. A vaccination “cannot be undone.” Where the virus poses a special danger because of the particular features of an employee’s job or workplace, targeted regulations are permissible but OSHA’s indiscriminate approach fails to distinguish between occupational risk and general risk. The equities do not justify withholding interim relief. States and employers allege that OSHA’s mandate will force them to incur billions of dollars in unrecoverable compliance costs and will cause hundreds of thousands of employees to leave their jobs. View "National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration" on Justia Law

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Social Security retirement benefits are calculated using a formula based on past earnings, 42 U.S.C. 415(a)(1)(A). Under the “windfall elimination” provision, benefits are reduced when a retiree receives a separate pension payment based on employment not subject to Social Security taxes. Pension payments exempt from the windfall reduction include those "based wholly on service as a member of a uniformed service.”A “military technician (dual status),” 10 U.S.C. 10216, is a “civilian employee” assisting the National Guard. Such technicians are required to maintain National Guard membership and must wear uniforms while working. For their work as full-time civilian technicians, they receive civil-service pay. If hired before 1984, they receive Civil Service Retirement System pension payments. As part-time National Guard members, they receive military pay and pension payments from a different arm of the government.The SSA applied the windfall elimination provision to the benefits calculation for Babcock, a dual-status technician. The district court and Sixth Circuit upheld that decision, declining to apply the uniformed-services exception.The Supreme Court affirmed. Civil Service Retirement System pensions generally trigger the windfall provision. Babcock’s technician work was not service “as” a National Guard member. A condition of employment is not the same as the capacity in which one serves. The statute states: “For purposes of this section and any other provision of law,” a technician “is” a “civilian employee,” “authorized and accounted for as” a “civilian.” While working in a civilian capacity, technicians are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They possess characteristically civilian rights concerning employment discrimination, workers’ compensation, disability benefits, and overtime work; technicians hired before 1984 are “civil service” members, entitled to pensions as civil servants. Babcock’s civil-service pension payments are not based on his National Guard service, for which he received separate military pension payments. View "Babcock v. Kijakazi" on Justia Law

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A California regulation mandates that agricultural employers allow union organizers onto their property for up to three hours per day, 120 days per year. Union organizers sought access to property owned by two California growers, who sought to enjoin enforcement of the access regulation. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit.The Supreme Court reversed. California’s access regulation constitutes a per se physical taking and the growers’ complaint states a claim for an uncompensated taking in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. When the government, rather than appropriating private property for itself or a third party, imposes regulations restricting an owner’s ability to use his own property, courts generally determine whether a taking has occurred by applying the “Penn Central” factors. When the government physically appropriates property, the flexible Penn Central analysis has no place. California’s access regulation appropriates a right to invade the growers’ property and therefore constitutes a per se physical taking. Rather than restraining the growers’ use of their own property, the regulation appropriates for the enjoyment of third parties (union organizers) the owners’ right to exclude. The right to exclude is “a fundamental element of the property right.” The duration of a physical appropriation bears only on the amount of compensation due. The California regulation is not transformed from a physical taking into a use restriction just because the access granted is restricted to union organizers, for a narrow purpose, and for a limited time.The Court distinguished restrictions on how a business generally open to the public may treat individuals on the premises; isolated physical invasions, not undertaken pursuant to a granted right of access; and requirements that property owners cede a right of access as a condition of receiving certain benefits. Government inspection regimes will generally not constitute takings. View "Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid" on Justia Law

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Two teachers at Roman Catholic elementary schools were employed under agreements that set out the schools’ mission to develop and promote a Catholic School faith community; imposed commitments regarding religious instruction, worship, and personal modeling of the faith; and explained that teachers’ performance would be reviewed on those bases. Each taught religion and worshipped with her students, prayed with her students. Each teacher sued after her employment was terminated. One claimed violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the other claimed she was discharged because she requested a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment. The Ninth Circuit declined to apply the Supreme Court's 2012 Hosanna-Tabor “ministerial exception” to laws governing the employment relationship between a religious institution and certain key employees.The Supreme Court reversed. The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses foreclose the adjudication of employment disputes involving those holding certain important positions with churches and other religious institutions. Several factors may be important in determining whether a particular position falls within the ministerial exception. What matters is what an employee does. Educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith lie are the core of a private religious school’s mission. The plaintiff-teachers qualify for the exception; both performed vital religious duties, educating their students in the Catholic faith, and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith. Their titles did not include the term “minister” but their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church’s mission. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of its employees in the life of the religion is important. The Ninth Circuit mistakenly treated the Hosanna-Tabor decision as a checklist; that court invested undue significance in the facts that these teachers did not have clerical titles and that they had less formal religious schooling than the Hosanna-Tabor teacher. The Court rejected a suggestion that an employee can never come within the Hosanna-Tabor exception unless the employee is a “practicing” member of the religion with which the employer is associated. View "Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru" on Justia Law

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Three employers each fired a long-time employee for being homosexual or transgender. Each employee sued, alleging sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it “unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” 42 U.S.C. 2000e–2(a)(1). The Eleventh Circuit held that the suit could be dismissed. The Second and Sixth Circuits allowed the claims to proceed.The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the employees. An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex regardless of whether other factors besides the plaintiff's sex contributed to the decision or whether the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. Discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex. It is irrelevant what an employer or others might call the discriminatory practice; that another factor, such as the plaintiff’s attraction to the same sex or presentation as a different sex from that assigned at birth, might play an important role in the employer’s decision; or that an employer could refuse to hire a gay or transgender individual without learning that person’s sex. The Court rejected arguments that homosexuality and transgender status are distinct concepts from sex and that a stricter causation test should apply because the policies at issue have the same adverse consequences for men and women. Legislative history has no bearing where no ambiguity exists about how Title VII’s terms apply to the facts. View "Bostock v. Clayton County" on Justia Law

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Babb, a VA pharmacist, filed suit under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. 633a(a). The district court granted the VA summary judgment, finding that Babb had established a prima facie case but that the VA had proffered legitimate reasons for the challenged actions, and that no jury could reasonably conclude that those reasons were pretextual. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.The Supreme Court reversed. Section 633a(a) demands that federal sector personnel actions be untainted by any consideration of age. The ADEA does not require proof that a federal employment decision would have turned out differently if age had not been taken into account. If age is a factor in an employment decision, the statute has been violated. It is not anomalous to hold the federal government to a stricter standard than private employers or state and local governments.But-for causation is important in determining the appropriate remedy. To obtain reinstatement, damages, or other relief related to the end result of an employment decision, a showing that a personnel action would have been different if age had not been taken into account is necessary, but if age discrimination played a lesser part in the decision, other remedies may be appropriate. View "Babb v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) makes it unlawful to hire an alien knowing that he is unauthorized to work in the U.S., 8 U.S.C. 1324a(a)(1), (h)(3). Employers must use an I-9 form to “attest” that they have “verified” that any new employee “is not an unauthorized alien” by examining approved documents. IRCA requires all employees to complete an I–9, attest that they are authorized to work, and provide specific personal information. It is a federal crime for an employee to provide false information on an I–9 or to use fraudulent documents to show work authorization, 18 U.S.C. 1028, 1546; it is not a federal crime for an alien to work without authorization. State laws criminalizing such conduct are preempted. The I–9 forms and appended documentation and the employment verification system may only be used for enforcement of specified federal laws.Kansas makes it a crime to commit “identity theft” or engage in fraud to obtain a benefit. Unauthorized aliens were convicted for fraudulently using another person’s Social Security number on tax withholding forms that they submitted upon obtaining employment. They had used the same Social Security numbers on their I–9 forms. The Kansas Supreme Court reversed, concluding that IRCA prohibits a state from using any information contained within an I–9 as the basis for a state law identity theft prosecution of an alien who uses another’s Social Security information in an I–9.The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the theory that no information placed on an I–9 could ever be used by any entity or person for any reason, other than the listed federal statutes. The sole function of the federal employment verification system is to establish that an employee is not barred from working in this country. The tax-withholding documents play no part in that process. Submitting withholding documents helped the defendants get jobs, but did not assist them in showing that they were authorized to work. The Kansas laws do not fall into a field that is implicitly reserved exclusively for federal regulation. Federal law does not create a unified, comprehensive system regarding the information that a state may require employees to provide. It is possible to comply with both IRCA and the Kansas statutes; the Kansas prosecutions did not frustrate any federal interests. View "Kansas v. Garcia" on Justia Law