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Supreme Ct. News Not All Bad for Employees This Term

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Image: David WeisenfeldIt’s no secret that the nation’s employees did not fare well in the two most highly-publicized Supreme Court rulings affecting them this term, Wal-Mart v. Dukes and AT&T v. Concepcion.  In both cases, the ability of plaintiffs to get relief as a class in the courts was curtailed.

The Wal-Mart holding will make it especially difficult for employees in differing job classifications to team together to win a class action discrimination lawsuit.  Meanwhile, the AT&T case arose not from the employment realm at all, but rather from a seemingly mundane consumer dispute.

A California couple, Victor and Liza Concepcion, claimed they had unknowingly signed away their right to initiate a class action against AT&T as part of a form agreement.  They were upset after being charged $300 for a cell phone that had been touted as free.  The Concepions argued that the arbitration clause they signed should be struck down as unconscionable because its classwide ban would leave them and other similarly-situated consumers without representation.

But just as in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the AT&T case broke down along strict ideological lines with the five conservative justices voting to uphold the classwide ban in another 5-4 opinion.  Writing for the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia asserted that courts must place arbitration agreements on equal footing with other contracts and enforce them according to their terms.  “Requiring the availability of classwide arbitration,” he said, “creates a scheme which is inconsistent with the Federal Arbitration Act.”

While the underlying facts arose from some unhappy consumers, it does not take much of a leap to see how the holding’s language could affect employees confronted with similar arbitration agreements by their employers.  No less an authority than veteran San Francisco plaintiff’s employment attorney Cliff Palefsky has said of AT&T v. Concepcion, “There’s a potential for mischief.” He adds that the ruling is sure to extend to arbitration clauses in the employment realm.

When the Wal-Mart and AT&T opinions are coupled together, the picture at the Supreme Court from this past term may not be a pretty one for employees.  But for those willing to dig a little deeper, the term actually reveals gains for workers when it comes to workplace anti-retaliation protections.

In a trio of cases, the justices ruled decisively for employees who alleged they were the victims of retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).  In two of the disputes, the decisions were unanimous while the third resulted in a 6-2 victory for the plaintiff employee.

The civil rights case, Thompson v. North American Stainless, involved a Kentucky man who said he was fired from his job because his fiancé had filed an EEO complaint against their employer.  While the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had held there is no cause of action for third-party retaliation on behalf of friends and family members who have not engaged in protected activity themselves, the Supreme Court soundly rejected that ruling.

In an opinion that was authored by Justice Scalia, the Court called it “obvious” that retaliating against an employee by firing her fiancé could dissuade that person from filing an EEO complaint or engaging in other legally-protected acts.

In another unanimous pro-employee outcome, Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the High Court held that employers may be liable for discrimination even when the decisionmaker herself harbored no discriminatory animus toward the plaintiff.  That marked yet another Justice Scalia opinion.

The case involved the claims of a military reservist who purportedly had been terminated from his job at an Illinois hospital for insubordination.  The plaintiff Vincent Staub said, however, that the real reason was because his immediate supervisor and another supervisor had an anti-military bias.  He claimed both were upset because of time he had missed while serving on active duty in Iraq.

The actual decisionmaker, though, was an HR vice president who had acted with no apparent bias.  Nonetheless, the Supreme Court found that lack of hostility to be irrelevant.  That’s because the supervisor who allegedly frowned on Staub’s military obligations was the same one who wrote up the report that the HR vice president relied upon in making her decision.

Meanwhile, another employee prevailed at the nation’s highest court in the Fair Labor Standards Act retaliation case of Kasten v. Saint-Gobain.  The justices ruled that the FLSA protected a Wisconsin factory worker’s complaints about the placement of time clocks even though he never made them in writing.

The Court found that oral complaints to company officials were enough.  In reaching their ruling, the justices reasoned that it was unlikely Congress would have wanted to limit the labor law’s effectiveness by excluding those who would find it hard to reduce their complaints to writing, namely illiterate, less educated or overworked employees.  It’s an opinion that is sure to aid the rights of blue-collar workers.

So what can we draw from these results?  The Supreme Court has a well-earned a reputation as a pro-business court.  And these three opinions hardly represent a seismic shift.  But while none of them are on the scale of the Wal-Mart or AT&T rulings, they ARE significant.

In all three of those retaliation cases, the employees had lost at the federal appellate level.  The fact that the Supreme Court saw fit to hear all three of those disputes and to issue one-sided reversals each time is a sign that the justices are willing to take a strong stand against retaliation in the workplace, at least when individual employees are affected rather than a large class.

About the Author: David Weisenfeld served as U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for LAWCAST from 1998 through June 2011.  During that time, he covered every employment law case heard by the Court, and also wrote and co-anchored the company’s employment law newscasts.  In addition, his work has appeared in the American Bar Association’s Supreme Court Preview magazine.


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