Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Fifth Circuit’

The Right To Birth Control Just Won Its Most Significant Victory To Date In A Post-Hobby Lobby Case

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

Ian Millhiser Judge Jerry Smith is a deeply conservative judge. He once voted to allow a man to be executed despite the fact that the man’s lawyer slept through much of his trial. He’s a reliable vote against abortion rights. And he once described feminists as a “gaggle of outcasts, misfits and rejects.”

So when Judge Smith writes an opinion protecting women’s access to birth control, even when their employer objects to contraception on religious grounds, that’s a very big deal.

East Texas Baptist University v. Burwell is a consolidated batch of cases, handed down on Monday, involving religious employers who object to some or all forms of birth control. These employers are entitled to an accommodation exempting them from federal rules requiring them to offer birth control coverage to their employees. Most of them may invoke this accommodation simply by filling out a form or otherwise informing the federal government of their objection and naming the company that administers their employer health plan. At this point, the government works separately with that company to ensure that the religious employer’s workers receive contraception coverage through a separate health plan.

Several lawsuits are working their way through the federal courts which raise the same legal argument at issue here. In essence, the employers claim that filling out the form that exempts them from having to provide birth control makes them complicit in their employee’s eventual decision to use contraception, and so the government cannot require them to fill out this form. So far, every single federal appeals court to consider this question has sided with the Obama administration and against religious employers who object to this accommodation.

Few judges on any court, however, are as conservative as Judge Jerry Smith, a Reagan appointee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit whose law clerks frequently go on to clerk for the most conservative members of the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Smith makes short work of the claim that the fill-out-a-form accommodation burdens religious liberty.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides that the federal government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” except in limited circumstances. Applying this language, Smith writes in a unanimous opinion for a three-judge panel that “[t]he plaintiffs must show that the challenged regulations substantially burden their religious exercise, but they have not done so.”

The crux of Smith’s analysis is that the plaintiffs in these cases object to birth control, but nothing in the law requires these plaintiffs to do anything whatsoever involving birth control. Rather, their only obligation, if they do not wish to cover birth control, is to fill out a form or send a brief letter to the federal government — and neither of those things are contraception.

“Although the plaintiffs have identified several acts that offend their religious beliefs, the acts they are required to perform do not include providing or facilitating access to contraceptives,” Smith explains. “Instead, the acts that violate their faith are those of third parties.” Specifically, the plaintiffs object to the federal government working with an insurance administrator to provide contraception to certain workers. But the law does not “entitle them to block third parties from engaging in conduct with which they disagree.”

Indeed, Smith writes, if the plaintiffs in these cases were to prevail, it could lead to absurd challenges to basic government functions. “Perhaps an applicant for Social Security disability benefits disapproves of working on Sundays and is unwilling to assist others in doing so,” Smith explains. “He could challenge a requirement that he use a form to apply because the Social Security Administration might process it on a Sunday. Or maybe a pacifist refuses to complete a form to indicate his beliefs because that information would enable the Selective Service to locate eligible draftees more quickly. The possibilities are endless, but we doubt Congress, in enacting RFRA, intended for them to be.”

Smith’s opinion, in other words, should offer a fair amount of comfort to women whose employers seek to cut off their access to birth control coverage. Though there are signs that at least some of the justices would like for the plaintiffs in cases like East Texas Baptist to prevail, the fact that a judge as conservative as Jerry Smith rejected their legal arguments suggests that a majority of the Supreme Court will not embrace these lawsuits.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on June 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Ian Millhiser. Ian Millhiser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, Slate, the Guardian, the American Prospect, the Yale Law and Policy Review and the Duke Law Journal. Ian’s first book is Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Southwest Flight Attendant Wins ADA Appeal

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Employee Fired For Taking Medical Leave Gets Jury Verdict Reinstated

When does too much time off for an illness justify a termination because of poor attendance? Not every time according to a case decided this past week from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Here’s what happened.

Facts Of The Case

Edward Carmona worked for Southwest Airlines as a flight attendant. He was plagued with psoriasis since he was a teen. As an adult, Carmona developed psoriatic arthritis which causes painful swelling and stiffness in the joints during attacks of psoriasis on the surface of his skin.

During flare-ups, Carmona is in great pain and has difficulty walking and moving around. The flare ups occur three or four times every month and each flare-up lasts for three or four days.

In order to get time off as needed for his condition, Carmona filed for intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. He was granted FMLA leave between 1998 and 2005, until Southwest determined that he had not worked enough hours to be eligible for renewal.

After Carmona’s FMLA leave expired, he was no longer able to excuse absences caused by his psoriatic arthritis. What followed was a round of progressive discipline which culminated in termination because of an accumulation of points relating to unexcused absences.

The Lawsuit

Carmona sued Southwest claiming that he was terminated because of his disability in violation of  the Americans with Disabilities Act. (ADA)*.

In order to prove an ADA claim, an individual must prove:

  • that he was an individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA
  • that he was a qualified individual for his job, despite his disability,
  • and that he was discharged because of his disability

In order to establish a disability, Carmona had to establish that he had:

  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities
  • a record of such an impairment or
  • that he was regarded as having such a impairment.

After a jury trial which Carmona won,  the judge granted judgment against Carmon as a matter of law on the grounds that he did not present sufficient evidence of a disability.  Specifically, the judge found Carmona’s intermittent limitations didn’t prove a substantially limiting impairment. In other words, the judge ruled that Carmona was not disabled as a matter of law and took away the verdict.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed in it’s opinion issued this week. You can read the decision here.

In sum, it held that the verdict should stand because there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that:

  • Carmona had an impairment that substantially limited his major life activity of walking
  • he was a qualified individual for his job
  • he was terminated because of his disability
Take Away

This is a really good decision for those who have conditions which cause intermittent disabling flare-ups and need to take time off of work because of it. It will particularly benefit those employees who work for employers not covered by the FMLA (companies with less than 50 employees).

The case also has a helpful discussion on Southwest’s core argument — that Carmona was not qualified for the job because of his poor attendance.

It’s also  good decision for those with cases pending before the ADA amendments Act of 2008. The Court did not apply the amendments retroactively, yet still found for the plaintiff under the narrower pre-amendments law.

The Court also wrote about reinstatement as a remedy — another topic we don’t see very often in ADA opinions.

In sum,  this case is a good result for employees and instructive to employers on the interplay of attendance policies and the ADA.

( *Carmona also had a Title VII claim; the jury found against him on that claim )

Image: blog.cleveland.com

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on March 27, 2010. Reprinted with permission by the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.


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