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Posts Tagged ‘Gorsuch’

The Supreme Court Case Testing the Limits of Gorsuch’s Textualism

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

Image result for richard primusIn three cases argued last week—Bostock v. Clayton CountyAltitude Express v. Zarda, and Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC—the Supreme Court confronted this question: Does Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination “because of [an] individual’s … sex” forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity?

Several lower courts and most academic commentators have said that the answer is yes. The logic is pretty simple. If a male employee is fired because he has sexual relationships with men, but female employees in the same workplace can have sexual relationships with men without getting fired, then the male employee was fired “because of [his] sex,” inasmuch as he would not have been fired had his sex been different. The same is true of a woman assigned female at birth who is fired because she lives as a man. If you’re tempted by the thought that firing a person for having a same-sex partner doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sex because the employer would fire people of any sex who have same-sex partners, ask yourself whether a law prohibiting people of any race to marry outside their racial groups, or to ride in a railroad car designated for people of a different race, discriminates on the basis of race. (It does.)

To be sure, nobody thinks that Congress in 1964 intended to ban workplace discrimination against LGBTQ persons when it prohibited discrimination “because of … sex.” But the words of the law turn out to do so, regardless of what Congress had in mind. The question before the Supreme Court, therefore, is what prevails when the text of a statute does something that the legislature that passed the statute did not have in mind—and would not have endorsed.

The justice to whom that question is posed most sharply, and who may well cast the deciding vote in these cases, is Justice Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch may find himself pulled in different directions by two of his strong jurisprudential commitments. On one hand, he generally thinks that courts should not be engines of social change, including by expanding the reach of antidiscrimination laws. Those sorts of changes, he believes, should come from legislatures. But on the other hand, Gorsuch is a proud and articulate textualist. In his oft-repeated view, a court applying a law passed by a legislature should be governed by what the words of the statute actually say, regardless of whether the court thinks the words of the statute embody good public policy. Nor should courts let the meaning of statutory text be overcome by considerations about the general purposes of the law or what members of the legislature said or thought during the lawmaking process. What matters is the text of the statute. And the text that Congress adopted, read literally, covers LGBTQ scenarios.

To be sure, all nine justices would probably describe themselves as textualists of one sort of another in cases of statutory interpretation. None of them thinks that courts can ignore what statutes say. But most are more open to considering other factors as well, including the legislature’s purpose. (The leading alternatives to textualist approaches to statutory interpretation are usually called “purposivist,” because they advocate taking into account what Congress meant to accomplish, not just what the law literally says.) Gorsuch’s textualism is the most uncompromising, and being a principled textualist is a big part—perhaps the biggest part—of Gorsuch’s public identity as a jurist.

So if Gorsuch were to write that employers are able to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation—whether because of a concern about precipitating social change or otherwise—critics will surely charge that his textualism is more rhetorical than real. They will say that he pretends to have a consistent interpretive theory, but he’s willing to jettison that theory when he doesn’t like the result it would lead to. That criticism might sting. But in the end, the charge of playing fast and loose with his principles is not the most significant problem Gorsuch would have to face if he ruled for the employers. He would also risk exposing one of the key premises of textualism as flawed.

At oral argument, Gorsuch recognized the strength of the textualist argument in favor of the LGBTQ plaintiffs. But Gorsuch also suggested that this point might not decide the case, because of a competing concern about the appropriate role of courts within the legal system. To decide that existing federal law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, Gorsuch mused, might cause significant social disruption. Perhaps, he said, American society is not ready for, or does not want, a legal rule protecting LGBTQ persons against workplace discrimination. And like most conservative-leaning federal judges—indeed, like most federal judges regardless of politics—Gorsuch takes the view that major social change should not come from court rulings but rather from democratically elected legislatures. Indeed, a big part of the point of textualism for someone like Gorsuch is that it prevents courts from substituting their own policy intuitions for those of legislatures.

How much social disruption would actually result from a ruling for the plaintiffs is of course a matter of guesswork: Counsel for the plaintiffs argued that it might not be so disruptive. But to a strict textualist, the degree of potential social disruption shouldn’t matter. If courts shouldn’t be in the business of making judgments about social policy, and instead should just apply statutes as written, then societal outcomes should be no reason to hesitate to do what the text of the statute says. It might feel like a ruling for the plaintiffs would constitute judge-ordered social change, but from a textualist viewpoint, ruling for the plaintiffs wouldn’t expand antidiscrimination law. It would just enforce the law that already exists.

That’s not to say that social disruption—were it to occur—wouldn’t be a problem. But a key tenet of statutory textualism is the idea that if statutes are problematic, the solution is not for courts to tinker with them. Courts must enforce laws as they are, warts and all, and leave any needed repair work to Congress. In the present case, that means that if Congress doesn’t think that Title VII should prevent discrimination against LGBTQ persons, Congress could add clarifying language to the statute. A textualist with faith in this process should have no problem enforcing the statute as written and leaving the rest up to Congress.

Like most justices, though, Gorsuch is a sophisticated observer of congressional behavior. He knows that in reality the legislative process is full of veto opportunities even when it isn’t completely gridlocked. Getting anything through Congress is difficult, and imagining that Congress will respond to every statutory interpretation it doesn’t like by passing appropriate statutory amendments is more than a little naïve. In this case, Gorsuch knows that Congress is unlikely to respond to a literal construction of Title VII by affirmatively authorizing discrimination against LGBTQ persons. There probably isn’t a sufficient majority in Congress today to pass legislation specifically prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ persons, but there probably isn’t a sufficient majority for passing a law specifically denying that protection, either. So whichever way the Supreme Court decides is likely to be how the law remains for some period of time.

That’s why the possibility of social disruption concerns Gorsuch: If he believed a legislative fix were a realistic possibility, he could just follow the text of the statute and let Congress do whatever cleanup work it thought was needed. But Gorsuch is entirely correct to doubt that any legislative fix would be forthcoming.

If Gorsuch writes an opinion in this case that suggests (even implicitly) that he does not trust the possibility of a legislative fix, he will have done more than give his critics grounds to say that he abandoned his textualist principles when he didn’t like the results. He will also be suggesting that, when push comes to shove, he knows that one of the premises of hard-core statutory textualism—that fixing statutes is the job of the legislature—is not in practice workable. That is not a signal that a Supreme Court justice who aspires to be his generation’s leading hard-edged textualist ought to want to send. The simplest way to avoid sending that signal, of course, is to apply the statute literally—that is, to rule that Title VII covers discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That would look like evidence that Gorsuch is seriously committed to his textualist approach, regardless of his views about the policy wisdom to which it leads in any given case.

This article was originally published at Politico on October 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard Primus is the Theodore J. St. Antoine Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Follow him on Twitter @Richard_Primus.

The sinister history underlying Neil Gorsuch’s decision lashing out at American workers

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

The ink was barely dry on Neil Gorsuch’s opinion in Epic Systems v. Morris before Ogletree Deakins — a management-side employment law firm that earned nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in profits per equity partner last year — started hawking an “innovative new product” that would enable employers to enrich themselves at the expense of their most vulnerable workers.

Epic Systems held that employers may force their employees, under pain of termination, to sign away their right to bring a class action lawsuit against their employers. It is an invitation — if not an incentive — for wage theft, as class actions are often the only recourse available to someone robbed of a few hundred, or even a few thousand, dollars by their boss.

Employment lawyers have known this decision was coming for months. And many of them are going to cash in.

Yet, while this Epic Systems decision became inevitable the minute Gorsuch claimed ownership of a Supreme Court seat that Senate Republicans held open more than a year until Donald Trump could fill it, the Court’s decision would shock the lawmakers who actually enacted the laws at issue in this case.

Gorsuch’s opinion is a mix of willful historical ignorance, ideological blindness, and a smug insistence that he has a special window into the law that many of his more experienced colleagues lack. Now, it threatens to revive one of the Supreme Court’s most disgraceful chapters.

The new Lochnerism

The conceit of Gorsuch’s Epic Systems opinion is that workers and their bosses sit down like equal bargaining partners to hash out their terms of employment. “Should employees and employers be allowed to agree that any disputes between them will be resolved through one-on-one arbitration?” Gorsuch begins his opinion with a question framed as if it could only have one answer. “Or should employees always be permitted to bring their claims in class or collective actions, no matter what they agreed with their employers?”

In reality, the facts of Epic Systems bear little resemblance to the civilized negotiation presented by Gorsuch. Workers at one of the companies at issue in this case received an email one day informing them that they must give up their right to bring class actions. Employees who “continue[d] to work at Epic,” according to the email, would “be deemed to have accepted” this agreement. A similar email was sent to the employees of one of the other companies that prevailed in Epic Systems.

These employees, in other words, only “agreed” to the terms proposed by their bosses in the same sense that a person accosted by a gunman in a dark alley “agrees” to give up their wallet. Their choice was to give up their rights or to immediately lose their jobs.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court ignored the fairly basic fact that employers typically have far more bargaining power than their workers — and can use this greater share of power to exploit their employees.

In its anti-canonical decision in Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court struck down a late nineteenth century law prohibiting bakeries from overworking their bakers. Such a law, Justice Rufus Peckham wrote for the Court, “interferes with the right of contract between the employer and employes [sic],” adding that “there is no contention that” bakery workers were unable “to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the State.”

In reality, bakers faced horrific working environments before the “protecting arm of the State” intervened to improve these conditions.

At the time, the overwhelming majority of New York City bakeries were basement operations located in the same tenements in which their customers lived. “’Filth, cobwebs and vermin’ filled these basements,” according to a city inspector’s report. Sewer pipes ran through many such bakeries, leaking their raw contents onto the workers, their workplaces, and the dough. In one such bakery, “’the water closet walls were literally black’ with roaches from floor to ceiling.”

Bakeries often had no windows and little ventilation, filling the air with irritating flour dust and fumes. Ovens heated the workplaces into infernos. Low ceilings required many workers to crouch, and the floors were typically either dirt or rotten wood filled with rat holes.

The average bakery worker labored at least 13 hours a day in these conditions, though some worked as much as 126-hours a week. Workers, moreover, were often required to sleep on the very same tables where they prepared the dough, and the cost of these makeshift beds were then deducted from their wages.

These were the sorts of conditions that the free market offered workers who, without the law to protect them, were forced to bargain alone with their employers. Perhaps, in some narrow sense, these workers “agreed” to work countless hours among the roaches, the heat, and the raw sewage. But only a judge blinded by their own ideology could conclude that these workers had any real choice in the matter.

“Concerted activities”

By the mid 1930s, Congress understood what men like Peckham and Gorsuch refused to see. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explains in her Epic Systemsdissenting opinion, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) on the premise that “employees must have the capacity to act collectively in order to match their employers’ clout in setting terms and conditions of employment.”

The law may not have the power to equalize bargaining power between workers and their bosses, but, by enabling those workers to join together, it could give them a fighting chance.

One provision of the NLRA — a provision that Gorsuch refused to honor in his Epic Systems opinion — provides that “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Class actions are precisely this — a form of “concerted activity” that workers may use for their own “mutual aid or protection.”

The idea behind a class action is that multiple workers with the same legal claim against their employer can join together under a single lawsuit. Such concerted activity is necessary for the simple reason that litigation is often prohibitively expensive. As Ginsburg notes in her dissent, employers at one of the companies at issue in Epic Systems “would likely have to spend $200,000 to recover only $1,867.02 in overtime pay and an equivalent amount in liquidated damages.”

Only a truly fanatical worker — and one with very deep pockets — might be willing to spend such an exorbitant sum for such a small amount of money. The only real hope for such a worker is to join a class action lawsuit with colleagues who were also cheated out of their fair pay.

Except that workers will soon be unable to seek this remedy. An estimated “23.1% of nonunionized employees are now subject to express class-action waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements,” according to Ginsburg’s dissent. Now that the Supreme Court has endorsed such illegal agreements, this number will skyrocket. Law firms are already lining up to show employers how to draft such agreements, and workers throughout the country will soon be left powerless against wage theft.

Twisted commerce

Gorsuch concludes his Epic Systems opinion with a flourish. “The policy may be debatable but the law is clear,” Trump’s Supreme Court nominee claims. “Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written.”

As it turns out, Gorsuch is half correct. The law is, indeed, clear. It just doesn’t say what he wants it to say.

The contracts at issue in Epic Systems are “forced arbitration” contracts, meaning that they not only strip employees of their right to bring a class action, they also require employment disputes to be resolved in a privatized arbitration system that tends to favor employers more than real courts of law. Though a law known as the Federal Arbitration Act protects arbitration agreements in certain contexts, that very same law explicitly exempts employment contracts.

Nevertheless, in its 2001 decision in Circuit City v. Adams, the Supreme Court wrote this safeguard for workers out of the law.

Circuit City turned on two interlocking provisions of the Federal Arbitration Act. The first provides that “A written provision in any maritime transaction or a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contract or transaction . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable” except under limited circumstances. The second exempts “contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”

To understand the scope of these two provisions, it’s important to understand some of the history surrounding the Federal Arbitration Act, which was enacted in 1925.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — the same period when the Court handed down Lochner — the Supreme Court also imposed strict limits on Congress’ constitutionally granted power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states.” During this period, the Court defined the word “commerce” narrowly, to encompass little more than the transit of goods across state lines. Manufacture of goods to be sold, mining of raw materials, and the farming of commodities were all deemed to be beyond Congress’ power to regulate.

Among other things, the Court relied on this stingy definition of the word “commerce” to strike down a federal law banning the interstate sale of goods manufactured by child labor.

In the 1930s, a little more than a decade after the Federal Arbitration Act became law, the Supreme Court abandoned this narrow understanding of Congress’ power to regulate commerce. Under modern precedents, Congress’ power over “commerce” now includes broad authority to regulate economic matters of nearly all kinds.

Which brings us back to the text of the Federal Arbitration Act. When Congress wrote this law, it understood phrases like “a transaction involving commerce” or “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” to use the narrow, pre-New Deal understanding of the word “commerce.” As the law was originally understood, it only protected arbitration agreements involving the transit of goods for sale.

Contracts involving manufacture, mining, or agriculture were beyond the scope of Congress’ authority, according to the Supreme Court at the time, and therefore beyond the scope of the Arbitration Act. Similarly, when the Act exempts “seamen, railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” Congress sought to exempt all employment contracts that it believed that it had the power to regulate at the time.

Of course, the Arbitration Act could also be read anachronistically. If the modern definition of the word “commerce” is inserted into the law, that would mean that nearly all contracts are governed by the law, but all employment contracts are exempt. Thus, under either plausible reading of the statute, contracts between workers and their employers are exempt.

Circuit City, however, read the statute a third way. It reads the phrase “a transaction involving commerce” using the modern definition, while reading the phrase “any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” using the 1925 definition. Thus, the policy favoring forced arbitration is given the broadest scope, while the exemption favoring workers is read exceedingly narrowly.

It’s a sick double-standard — the kind that should make anyone who reads the Court’s Circuit City opinion doubt the good faith of the justices in the majority.

Without Circuit City, there could not be a decision like Epic Systems. Gorsuch’s opinion builds upon Circuit City‘s holding that the word “commerce” can mean one thing in one provision of the law and something completely different in another provision of the same law. Circuit City is one of the Supreme Court’s greatest sins against the English language, and the text of the law itself is entirely at odds with Gorsuch’s claim in Epic Systems that “Congress has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written.”

So the law, as Gorsuch condescendingly asserts, is indeed clear. The Federal Arbitration Act exempts all employment contracts, and any claim to the contrary requires the Court to turn a blind eye to history.

Which, of course, is exactly what Gorsuch did in Epic Systems. He ignored the way the law was originally understood, ignored the text of the National Labor Relations Act, ignored the law’s hard-won understanding that employees and employers do not have equal bargaining power, and ignored Congress’ explicit efforts to strike a different balance of power between workers and their bosses.

It is a great day for law firms that profit off the exploitation of workers. And it is an even greater day for their clients.

The rest of us can either sign away our rights or lose our jobs.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

The Supreme Court’s Latest Anti-Worker Decision Deals a Major Blow to the #MeToo Movement

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

After months of sustained public pressure targeting sexual harassment in workplaces across the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday significantly undermined the power of workers to collectively challenge discrimination and abuse at the hands of their employers. In a 5-4 decision on the Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis casethe Court ruled that private-sector employees do not have the right to enter into class-action lawsuits to challenge violations of federal labor laws.

“[T]he Supreme Court has taken away a powerful tool for women to fight discrimination at work,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, in a press statement. “Instead of banding together with coworkers to push back against sexual harassment, pay discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, racial discrimination, wage theft and more, employees may now be forced behind closed doors into an individual, costly—and often secret—arbitration process. This will stack the deck in favor of the employer.”

The case concerns tens of thousands of employees at three companies—Epic Systems Corp., Ernst & Young LLP and Murphy Oil USA Inc.—who were forced to sign away their right to join class-action lawsuits against their employers as a precondition to being hired.

The workers argued that their right to file class-action lawsuits over alleged wage and hours violations is protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which was passed in 1935 to offer employees greater leverage to collectively challenge unjust treatment on the job. But, echoing the employers’ arguments, Justice Neil Gorsuch—who was appointed by Trump—wrote in the majority opinion that the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act supersedes the NLRA.

The ruling means that workers do not have the right to take bosses to court over alleged violations of federal labor laws. It also means bosses can force workers to arbitrate complaints individually instead of collectively, which overwhelmingly slants in favor of employers. This ruling is poised to impact a large swath of the U.S. workforce, where 41 percent of private-sector employees have already signed away their right to class-action legislation.

These workers include those who are pushing against wage and hour violations, as well as fighting patterns of racism, sexism and other forms of harassment in the workplace. Workers’ rights advocates say they are concerned that the ruling could potentially be detrimental to the #MeToo movement, which has relied on power in numbers to confront sexual assault in workplaces from Hollywood to tomato fields. Some warn that, for those facing sexual harassment in the workplace, the choice between employer-controlled arbitration or continuing on in silence is a choice between two bad options.

“#MeToo has shown us that the abuse of power is not one ‘rotten apple in a barrel’: It is widespread and systemic, especially in low-wage industries,” Palak Shah, social innovations director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told In These Times. “We need checks on power—like collective action—to counter abuses of power when they happen. While unchecked power imbalances exist between employers and workers, we can be sure abuses like sexual harassment will continue.”

Arbitration is often kept secret and, employees frequently foot the bill for the arbitration process. Experts warn that this secrecy would protect employers responsible for harmful work environments by not allowing space for workers to collectively address widespread patterns of harassment.

“In the case of sexual harassment, say there was a group of employees who claimed that they’d been sexually harassed, they can’t proceed together. They’d have to go individually [to arbitration] and they can’t go to court,” Alexander Colvin, a labor relations scholar at Cornell University, told In These Times.

According to Graves, the stakes are “particularly high” for women who “often face discrimination that is difficult to detect, like pay discrimination, or suffer from sexual harassment and face retaliation for reporting it.”

Writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the 1925 law exemplified a different age for labor relations, and that employees should not be forced into “take-it-or-leave-it” agreements in order to find gainful employment.

The case is one of several currently being considered by the Supreme Court that could severely undermine workers’ rights. Much like the pending decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which could prevent unions from collecting union dues from non-union members, it furthers the ongoing anti-worker agenda pushed by the Trump administration.

“As mandatory arbitration is forced on growing numbers of employees as a condition of employment,” Graves added, “the Supreme Court should strengthen rather than undermine the rights of workers to challenge insidious and often widespread civil rights violations.”

 About the Authors: Rima Parikh is a summer 2018 editorial intern at In These Times and an incoming MSJ candidate at Northwestern University. Tanner Howard is a freelance journalist and In These Times editorial intern. They’re also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Here Are the 10 Worst Attacks on Workers From Trump’s First Year

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

January 20th marks the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Since taking office, President Trump has overseen a string of policies that will harm working people and benefit corporations and the rich. Here we present a list of the 10 worst things Congress and Trump have done to undermine pay growth and erode working conditions for the nation’s workers.

1) Enacting tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy over the average worker

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) signed into law at the end of 2017 provides a permanent cut in the corporate income tax rate that will overwhelmingly benefit capital owners and the top 1%. President Trump’s boast to wealthy diners at his $200,000-initiation-fee Mar-a-Lago Club on Dec. 22, 2017, says it best: “You all just got a lot richer.”

2) Taking billions out of workers’ pockets by weakening or abandoning regulations that protect their pay

In 2017, the Trump administration hurt workers’ pay in a number of ways, including acts to dismantle two key regulations that protect the pay of low- to middle-income workers. The Trump administration failed to defend a 2016 rule strengthening overtime protections for these workers, and took steps to gut regulations that protect servers from having their tips taken by their employers.

3) Blocking workers from access to the courts by allowing mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts

The Trump administration is fighting on the side of corporate interests who want to continue to require employees to sign arbitration agreements with class action waivers. This forces workers to give up their right to file class action lawsuits, and takes them out of the courtrooms and into individual private arbitration when their rights on the job are violated.

4) Pushing immigration policies that hurt all workers

The Trump administration has taken a number of extreme actions that will hurt all workers, including detaining unauthorized immigrants who were victims of employer abuse and human trafficking, and ending Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers, many of whom have resided in the United States for decades. But perhaps the most striking example has been the administration’s termination of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program.

5) Rolling back regulations that protect worker pay and safety

President Trump and congressional Republicans have blocked regulations that protect workers’ pay and safety. By blocking these rules, the president and Congress are raising the risks for workers while rewarding companies that put their employees at risk.

6) Stacking the Federal Reserve Board with candidates friendlier to Wall Street than to working families

President Trump’s actions so far—including his choice not to reappoint Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and his nomination of Randal Quarles to fill one of the vacancies—suggest that he plans to tilt the board toward the interests of Wall Street rather than those of working families.

7) Ensuring Wall Street can pocket more of workers’ retirement savings

Since Trump took office, the Department of Labor has actively worked to weaken or rescind the “fiduciary” rule, which requires financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients when giving retirement investment advice. The Trump administration’s repeated delays in enforcing this rule will cost retirement savers an estimated $18.5 billion over the next 30 years in hidden fees and lost earning potential.

8) Stacking the Supreme Court against workers by appointing Neil Gorsuch

Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, has a record of ruling against workers and siding with corporate interests. Cases involving collective bargaining, forced arbitration and class action waivers in employment disputes are already on the court’s docket this term or are likely to be considered by the court in coming years. Gorsuch may cast the deciding vote in significant cases challenging workers’ rights.

9) Trying to take affordable health care away from millions of working people

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans spent much of 2017 attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They finally succeeded in repealing a well-known provision of the ACA—the penalty for not buying health insurance—in the tax bill signed into law at the end of 2017. According to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2027, the repeal of this provision will raise the number of uninsured Americans by 13 million.

10) Undercutting key worker protection agencies by nominating anti-worker leaders

Trump has appointed—or tried to appoint—individuals with records of exploiting workers to key posts in the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Nominees to critical roles at DOL and the NLRB have—in word and deed—expressed hostility to the worker rights laws they are in charge of upholding.

This list is based on a new report out from the Economic Policy Institute.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 19, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.

Supreme Court takes up case that will devastate public sector unions

Friday, September 29th, 2017

In what is all but certain to be a terrible blow to organized labor, the Supreme Court announced on Thursday that it will hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case seeking to defund public sector unions. The case presents an issue that was recently before the Court, and where the justices split 4-4 along party lines.

Now that Neil Gorsuch occupies the seat that Senate Republicans held open for more than a year until Donald Trump could fill it, he holds the fifth vote to deliver a staggering blow to the union movement.

The issue in Janus involves what are sometimes referred to as “agency fees” or “fair share fees.” As ThinkProgress explained when this issue was last before the Court:

Unions are required by law to bargain on behalf of every worker in a unionized shop, even if those workers opt not to join the union. As such, non-members receive the same higher wages (one study found that workers in unionized shops enjoy a wage premium of nearly 12 percent) and benefits enjoyed by their coworkers who belong to the union.

Absent something else, this arrangement would create a free-rider problem, because individual workers have little incentive to join the union if they know they will get all the benefits of unionizing regardless of whether they reimburse the union for its costs. Eventually, unions risk becoming starved for funds and collapsing, causing the workers once represented by a union to lose the benefits of collective bargaining.

To prevent this free-rider problem, union contracts often include a provision requiring non-members to pay agency fees.

The plaintiff in Janus asks the Supreme Court to declare these agency fees unconstitutional, at least in contracts involving public sector unions, under what can charitably be described as an aggressive reading of the First Amendment. Indeed, prior to his death, even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia sometimes appeared skeptical of the plaintiff’s legal theory (although he did join an opinionthat embraced much of it).

With Gorsuch on the bench, however, there is little suspense regarding how Janus will come down. Unions will almost certainly be severely weakened by this decision. And, as a benefit to the Supreme Court’s increasingly partisan majority, that will also weaken a key arm of the Democratic party’s political infrastructure, making it more likely that the Court will remain in Republican hands.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Supreme Court opens its new term with a direct attack on workers’ rights

Monday, September 25th, 2017

The Supreme Court returns next Monday from its summer vacation for the first full term where Neil Gorsuch will occupy a seat at the far end of the Court’s bench. And the Court will open this term with a trio of cases that are very likely to immunize many employers from consequences for their illegal actions.

The three cases — National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USAErnst & Young LLP v. Morris, and Epic Systems v. Lewis — all involve employment contracts cutting off employee’s rights to sue their employer for legal violations.

In at least one case, employees were required to sign the contract as a condition of beginning work. In another, employees were forced to give up their rights as a condition of keeping their job. These contracts contained two restrictions on the employees: 1) a “forced arbitration” provision, which requires any legal disputes between the employer and the employee to be resolved in a privatized arbitration system; and 2) a provision prohibiting employees from bringing class actions or other collective suits against their employers.

Requiring private arbitration favors employers over employees. As an Economic Policy Institute study determined, employees are less likely to prevail before an arbitrator than before a court, and they typically receive less money from an arbitrator when they do prevail.

Banning class action suits, meanwhile, effectively permits employers to violate the law with impunity, so long as they do not do too much harm to any individual employee.

If an employer cheats one employee out of $300,000 worth of wages, for example, that employee is likely to be able to find a lawyer who will take his case on a contingency basis — meaning that the lawyer gets a percentage of what the employee collects from the employer if they win. If the same employer cheats 10,000 employees out of $30 each, however, no lawyer is going to represent any one of these workers on a contingency basis. Plus, few employees are likely to bother with a $30 suit. It’s too much hassle, and too expensive to hire a lawyer who won’t work on contingency. The solution to this problem is a class action suit, which allows the 10,000 employees to join together in a single case litigated by a single legal team.

Banning such class actions effectively leaves these employees without remedy. As one federal judge explained, “the realistic alternative to a class action is not 17 million individual suits, but zero individual suits, as only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30.”

The employer’s claim that they can combine a forced arbitration clause with a class action ban arises out of two previous Supreme Court cases that took an extraordinarily creative view of a nearly 100-year-old law.

In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act to allow, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once explained, “merchants with relatively equal bargaining power” to agree to resolve their disputes through arbitration. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the Court started to read this law expansively to permit forced arbitration between businesses and relatively powerless consumers and employees.

Then, the Court got even more aggressive. By its own terms, the Federal Arbitration Act exempts “workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.” Nevertheless, in its 5-4 decision in Circuit City v. Adams, the Supreme Court held that the Act applies to most workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce. Thus, forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts were given special protected status, even though the federal law governing these clauses says otherwise.

Similarly, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for a 5-4 Court in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion that the Federal Arbitration Act has penumbras, formed by emanations from its guarantees that give it life and substance. The right of businesses to insert class action bans, Scalia claimed, is one of these penumbras contained in the 1925 law. And so businesses gained the power to add no class action clauses to their forced arbitration agreements, even if a ban on class actions violates state law — and despite the fact that the Federal Arbitration Act says nothing about class actions.

Nevertheless, the employees in Murphy Oil and its companion cases hope that another provision of law will protect them from signing away their right to join a class action.

A provision of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides that “employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Several lower courts have held that an employee’s right to engage in “concerted activities” protects their right to join class actions, and they cite multiple previous Supreme Court decisions which lend credibility to this claim.

In a world governed by the text of the law, employees would have a strong case that they cannot be forced to give up their right to bring class action litigation. But we live in a world governed by Circuit City and Concepcion — both of which demonstrate the Supreme Court’s willingness to take liberties with the law in forced arbitration cases.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

The Trump administration is quietly making it easier to abuse seniors in nursing homes

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

The Trump administration is poised to undo rules issued by the Obama administration last year to protect seniors from a common tactic used by businesses to shield themselves from consequences for illegal conduct.

Under these rules, issued last September, Medicare and Medicaid would cut off payments to nursing homes that require new residents to sign forced arbitration agreements, a contract which strips individuals of their ability to sue in a real court and diverts the case to a privatized arbitration system.

But last month, the Trump administration published a proposed rule which will reinstate nursing homes’ ability to receive federal money even if they force seniors into arbitration agreements.

Forced arbitration can prevent even the most egregious cases from ever reaching a judge. According to the New York Times, a 94 year-old nursing home resident “who died from a head wound that had been left to fester, was ordered to go to arbitration.” In another case, the family of a woman who suffered “two spine fractures from serious falls, a large, infected ulcer on her heel that prevented her from walking, incontinence from not being able to get to the bathroom, receding gums from poor hygiene assistance, and a dramatic weigh loss from not being given her dentures,” was also sent to an arbitrator after they sued the woman’s nursing home alleging neglect.

Moreover, as law professor and health policy expert Nicholas Bagley notes, arbitration tends “to favor the repeat players who hire them—companies, not consumers.” Several studies have found that forced arbitration typically produces worse outcomes for consumers and workers. An Economic Policy Institute study of employment cases, for example, found that employees are less likely to prevail before an arbitrator, and that they typically receive less money if they do prevail.

The Obama-era rules were never allowed to take effect. Shortly after the regulations were announced, a George W. Bush-appointed judge in Mississippi issued a decision blocking the rule—although Judge Michael Mills did caveat his order by stating that “this case places this court in the undesirable position of preliminarily enjoining a Rule which it believes to be based upon sound public policy.”

Important parts of Mills’ opinion rely on dubious reasoning. At one point, for example, he cites a doctrine limiting the federal government’s power to use threats of lost funding against state governments in order to impose similar limits on federal efforts to encourage good behavior by private actors.

But let’s be honest. If the Trump administration wasn’t preparing to end the Obama-era rule, conservatives on the Supreme Court most likely would have done so themselves.

Prior to Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, the Supreme Court’s Republican majority took such a sweeping and expansive view of companies’ power to use forced arbitration that it is likely the Obama administration’s rules would have been struck down in a 5–4 decision. Now that Neil Gorsuch occupies Scalia’s seat, Republicans once again have the majority they need to shield arbitration agreements.

In the alternative universe where the winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election was inaugurated last January, Justice Merrick Garland was likely to provide the fifth vote to uphold the Obama-era rule. But we do not live in that universe. And neither do the many elderly nursing home residents who will be worse off thanks to the Trump administration.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 6, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received his JD from Duke University and clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. His writings have appeared in a diversity of publications, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Nation, the American Prospect and the Yale Law & Policy Review.

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