President Donald Trump has nominated Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia nearly one year ago. Known for his classical constructionist approach, Gorsuch is expected to restore the ideological balance that existed before Justice Scalia’s passing, with four conservatives, four liberals and Justice Anthony Kennedy (for whom Judge Gorsuch worked as a law clerk) serving as a swing vote.
If confirmed, Judge Gorsuch’s presence on the High Court will invariably impact the judicial landscape of labor and employment law. More than three dozen petitions are currently pending before the Court, seeking interpretation of laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Title VII), the NLRA, the ADA and others.
Here are a few issues to watch:
On March 29, 2016, the Supreme Court issued a 4-4 opinion in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which the Court summarily upheld the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision allowing public sector unions to tax employees who decline union membership with “agency” or “fair share” fees similar to the cost of union dues. Justice Scalia, who engaged in lively questioning during oral argument in this case but died before the opinion was issued, was expected to cast the fifth vote in favor of the employees, who argued that the agency fees violated their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and association. But with Scalia’s absence, the Court was deadlocked.
The Friedrichs case was expected to have critical implications on the continued viability of public sector unions. While the plaintiff’s petition for rehearing has been denied, more cases like this are bubbling up through the courts. Changes also have been made through legislative action, with “right to work” laws having been enacted in 27 states and Guam. Under the right to work laws, employees in union shops may maintain employment without having to pay union dues or other fees.
Arbitration Agreements and Class Wide Waivers of NLRB Claims
After several requests, the Supreme Court has agreed to review the ruling in D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184 (2012), in which a 3-2 majority of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that class action waivers in arbitration agreements violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. On January 13, 2017, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in three cases involving the validity of the D.R. Horton rule. One case, NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., arises out of a Board decision finding that an employer had engaged in an unfair labor practice by entering into arbitration agreements with its employees, and the other two, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis and Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris, are private-party disputes in which employees invoked D.R. Horton to challenge their arbitration agreements.
The Supreme Court has historically favored arbitration agreements in other settings, and these concepts have been extended to the employment setting. With certain delineated exceptions, employers are generally able to implement arbitration agreements with class wide waivers to mitigate their litigation risk.
Now that the D.R. Horton issue has been accepted for review, Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation may provide employers with hope that the Court will extend the FAA’s footprint, honoring arbitration agreements in the union setting.
Another recent NLRB ruling set for review this year is the board’s August 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., in which the Board found that a California waste management company (Browning-Ferris) jointly employed its staffing agency workers. The decision effectively rewrote the NLRB’s test for deciding whether two affiliated companies are joint employers that share bargaining responsibilities when workers organize and legal liability when they file suit. Before the decision, the joint employer standard rested on a business having “direct and immediate” control over terms and conditions of employment. The Browning-Ferris Board revised the standard to include “indirect control,” or even the “ability to exert” such control. When Browning-Ferris thereafter refused to recognize and bargain with the newly elected union, an unfair labor practice charge was filed, and the Board found another violation of the Act.
The Browning-Ferris cases are part of a growing body of litigation over joint employer liability that is anticipated to take a significant toll on employers in coming years. Employees have sought to apply the new joint employer standard outside of the NLRA, including in cases involving alleged violations of OSHA, the FLSA, the FMLA and other statutes.
The Browning-Ferris, currently on review before the D.C Circuit Court of Appeals, warrants close monitoring. Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation would restore hope that employers will regain some clarity into the now amorphous and overly expansive definition of joint employer liability.
Discrimination Based Upon Sexual Orientation
A final issue poised for review is whether Title VII bars employers from discriminating against employees because of their sexual orientation. Courts have long held that it does not. However, the Seventh Circuit may go against the status quo following a recent en banc rehearing of Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College. In that case, the plaintiff-employee claimed that the employer violated Title VII by failing to award her a full time position because of her sexual orientation. The issue is squarely one of statutory construction, and the en banc court has been tasked with determining whether Title VII can be interpreted as recognizing a discrimination claim based upon sexual orientation as a sub-segment of prohibited gender bias. During the en banc hearing, the Court challenged the notion of strict construction, pointing to other acts, such as the Sherman Act, that are interpreted far differently now than when they first were enacted. If the Seventh Circuit rules in favor of the employee, the resulting split in circuits may signify a need for High Court intervention, provided the legislature doesn’t get there first.
Judge Gorsuch has a reputation as someone who would follow the general judicial philosophy of Justice Scalia, but without some of the more acerbic oral argument commentary for which Justice Scalia was known. For an enlightening insight into Judge Gorsuch’s personal views on Justice Scalia and his legacy, this 2016 Canary Lectureship article by Judge Gorsuch is well worth reading.
Assuming no surprises, it is likely that Judge Gorsuch will be confirmed over strenuous Democratic opposition and will impact the Court for many years.