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Recap of Supreme Court’s labor & employment law decisions

July 4th, 2009  |  David Stephanides

>As reported in CCH’s WorkWeek e-Newsletter (click here to sign up), here is a recap of the Supreme Court’s labor and employment decisions handed down during the October 2008 term:

Ricci v DeStefano. By throwing out the results of an examination to determine those firefighters best qualified for a promotion, the City of New Haven, Connecticut, violated Title VII’s prohibition against discriminatory treatment based on race. A 5-4 majority of the High Court applied a new standard of statutory construction, holding that before an employer can engage in what otherwise would be prohibited discriminatory treatment in order to avoid or remedy an unintentional, disparate impact, the employer must have “a strong basis in evidence” to believe it will be subject to disparate impact liability if it fails to take the race-conscious, discriminatory action (June 29, 2009).

Atlantic Sounding Co v Townsend. An injured seaman may sue to recover punitive damages under general maritime law for the his employer’s alleged willful and wanton failure to provide a “maintenance” (wages he otherwise would have earned, food and lodging) and “cure” (medical services) for the injuries he suffered while working on the employer’s tugboat, the Supreme Court held (June 25, 2009).

Locke v Karass. A union representing Maine’s state employees may charge fee-paying nonmembers for the national, or “extra-local” litigation expenses incurred by its parent union, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled, holding that the First Amendment permits such charges (January 21, 2009).

Crawford v Metro Gov’t of Nashville. Continuing its recent trend of broadening Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision, the High Court unanimously ruled that the Act’s retaliation protections extend to employees who speak out about discrimination and harassment not of their own accord, but when answering questions during an employer-ordered internal investigation. Because the employee’s conduct was protected under Title VII’s opposition clause, the Court declined to address whether her conduct was also governed by the anti-retaliation provision’s participation clause (January 26, 2009).

Ysursa v Pocatello Educ Ass’n. An Idaho law banning public employee payroll deductions for union political activities did not violate labor unions’ free speech rights, the Supreme Court ruled, noting the distinction between state suppression of speech and instances in which states decline to promote speech (February 24, 2009).

14 Penn Plaza LLC v Pyett. Affirming its decidedly pro-arbitration policy, the Supreme Court held that courts must enforce collective bargaining agreements that “clearly and unmistakably” require union members to arbitrate their claims arising under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Such agreements are enforceable under the ADEA since the Act does not preclude arbitration of claims brought pursuant to the statute (April 1, 2009).

Flores-Figueroa v United States. In a case informing on federal worksite immigration enforcement operations, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that an undocumented worker who presented false Social Security and Alien Registration numbers to obtain employment may not be convicted of identity theft under the federal “aggravated identity theft” statute unless the federal government shows that the worker had actual knowledge that the means of identification belonged to another person (May 4, 2009).

Arthur Anderson LLP v Carlisle. In an investor suit, the Supreme Court held that a litigant who was not a party to an arbitration agreement may invoke Sec. 3 of the Federal Arbitration Act to compel arbitration if applicable state law would allow enforcement of contracts by (or against) a nonsignatory through assumption or third-party beneficiary theories (May 5, 2009).

AT&T Corp v Hulteen. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act does not require employers to set current pension benefits at a level that will restore service credits to female employees for pregnancy leaves taken prior to the passage of the PDA. In one of the last opinions to be authored by Justice Souter, the High Court held that employers do not necessarily violate the PDA when paying pension benefits calculated in part under an accrual rule – applied prior to the PDA’s enactment – that gives fewer service credits for pregnancy leaves than for other medical leaves. Because AT&T’s benefit calculation rule accorded with the terms of a bona fide seniority system under Title VII, the company was insulated from a legal challenge (May 18, 2009).

Ashcroft v Iqbal. “Civil rights plaintiffs will have to be more thoughtful about how they frame their complaints to avoid pleading themselves out of court” following the Supreme Court’s ruling in an antitrust case, notes plaintiff’s lawyer Paul Mollica in his Daily Developments in EEO Law blog. Though not an employment case, the High Court’s ruling makes clear that the heightened pleading standards set forth in its 2007 decision in Bell Atlantic Corp v Twombly applies to all civil actions, not just antitrust cases, and that “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” (May 18, 2009).

Gross v FBL Fin Servs Group. Declining to import the mixed-motives burden-shifting rubric applied under Title VII, the Supreme Court ruled that an employee claiming disparate treatment under the ADEA must establish by a preponderance of evidence that age was the “but-for” cause of the adverse employment action challenged. Even when the employee has produced some evidence that age was one motivating factor in the employer’s decision, the burden of persuasion does not shift to the employer to show that it would have taken the same action regardless of age, held the Court (June 18, 2009).