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Five Employment Cases at the Supreme Court This Term

By Mary Kathryn Curry

The employment and labor law cases we previously reviewed have now been resolved by the eight Justices. Despite the possibility of deadlock, a majority ruling was issued by the Court in most of the cases. A brief update: 

  • The Court affirmed and remanded with a 6-2 vote Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo, finding the district court did not err when certifying and maintaining a class of employees who alleged the employer’s failure to pay them for the additional time required to don and doff protective gear violated the Fair Labor Standards Act; 
  • The Court vacated and remanded in a 7-1 vote Green v. Brennan, holding the filing period for a constructive discharge claim begins to run when the employee resigns; 
  • The Court affirmed in a 6-2 vote Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, finding ERISA pre-empts Vermont state law that requires certain entities – including health insurers – to report payments to the state, a program designed “to provide comprehensive state-level information about the distribution of health care services provided in the state and the costs of providing them.”; 
  • The Court vacated and remanded Spokeo v. Robins in a 6-2 vote, finding the Ninth Circuit failed to consider both aspects of the injury-in-fact requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act; 
  • The Court vacated and remanded CRST Van Expedited v. EEOC in an 8-0 vote, a case involving the EEOC’s conciliation obligations, holding that a favorable ruling on the merits is not a required predicate to find the defendant is a prevailing party for purposes of an award of attorney’s fees; 
  • The Court was deadlocked 4-4 in In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which involved whether public employees who do not join a union can be required to pay an “agency” or “fair share” fee to cover costs that the union incurs. The case was affirmed by an equally divided court per curiam, which means the decision of the court below is affirmed, but the case is not considered to be binding precedent; 
  • The Court also vacated and remanded Zubik v. Burwell, a case involving religious freedom and contraception, in a per curium opinion; and 
  • The much anticipated MHN Government Services, Inc. v. Zaborowski, which involved California’s arbitration-only severability rule, settled. Perhaps this was in light of the Court’s recent resolution of DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, which rejected the California Supreme Court’s refusal to enforce the arbitration agreement in the case.

Notably, in early February of this year, the Court informed litigants in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis that the Court will defer hearing argument in that case until the October 2017 term. The Epic Systems case involves the question of whether an employer’s use of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts violates the National Labor Relations Act. In spring 2016, the Seventh Circuit determined such class action waivers were unlawful and unenforceable, in contravention of rulings from the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits.