Category Archives: Supreme Court

Gorsuch, Chevron and Workplace Law

Judge Gorsuch

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Employers and their attorneys are widely hailing President Trump’s nomination of 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Part of the reason that management-side lawyers are praising Gorsuch is his position on Chevron deference. Gorsuch’s views on Chevron could affect how workplace laws are interpreted and how they apply to workers.

Chevron deference is a legal rule that a court will give the benefit of the doubt about the interpretation of the law to how the executive agency charged with enforcing that law understands the law. Gorsuch has criticized Chevron on separation of powers basis, stating that Chevron deference gives too much power to the executive branch at the expense of the legislative and judiciary branches. Recently, government agencies have been interpreting employment laws in a way that is more favorable toward employees. Recent rules issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act are a prime example.

Many workers who get hurt on the job are told that they must come back to work with no restrictions. Chevron deference could be a powerful legal tool for workers faced with such policies. The new EEOC regulations on the ADA outlaw 100-percent-healed policies or policies that require plaintiffs to return to work without restrictions. In the EEOC guidance on the issue, the EEOC cites Kaufman v. Peterson Health Care VII, LLC 769 F. 3d 958 (7th Cir. 2014) as an example of policies that they believe to be unlawful under ADAAA. This case represents a subtle but real shift from current 8th Circuit law as stated in Fjellestad v. Pizza Hut of America, 188 F. 3d 949, 951-952 (8th Cir. 1999) where the 8th Circuit joined other federal circuits that held that failure to engage in an interactive process in accommodating a disability was not per se discrimination, and that there was no duty to engage in the interactive process. The EEOC’s interpretations of the new regulations still require that a plaintiff be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

But as indicated by Kaufman, courts may be less likely to dismiss cases before trial, or in legal terminology, to grant summary judgment, on the issue of whether a plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation if the defendant does not engage in an interactive process or summarily decides that an employee should not be allowed to return without restrictions.

The fact that there is a split between regional appellate courts, a so-called circuit split, over “100 percent healed” policies increases the chances that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether 100-percent-healed policies violate the ADA. Another issue where there is a circuit split that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide is the legality of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements.

Many workers unwittingly give up their rights to have employment-law disputes heard in court when they agree to mandatory arbitration clauses as a term of employment. In D.R. Horton Inc., 357 N.L.B. No 184 (2012) the National Labor Relations Board ruled that mandatory arbitration clauses prohibited Fair Labor Standards Act collective action cases because they interfered with protected concerted activity under 29 U.S.C. §157 and 29 U.S.C. § 158. In Lewis v. Epic Systems, 823 F. 3d 1147, 1154 (7th Cir. 2016), the 7th Circuit struck down a mandatory arbitration clause partly based on giving Chevron deference to the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton. The 9th Circuit agreed with the 7th Circuit in Morris v. Ernst and Young, LLP, No 13-16599 (Aug. 22, 2016). Unfortunately for plaintiffs, the 8th Circuit disagreed with the D.R. Horton decision in Owen v. Bristol Care, 702 F. 3d 1050 (8th Cir. 2013).

If confirmed, Gorsuch would be unlikely to give much weight to the opinions of the EEOC or NLRB in interpreting employment laws. Chevron deference is an unpopular concept with pro-business conservatives. Recently, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation that, if enacted, would abolish Chevron deference.

Conversely, Chevron deference is a popular concept with progressive employee and civil-rights advocates, as it allowed the Obama administration to expand employee protections in the face of a hostile Congress. But with the advent of the Trump administration and his immigration policies, progressives have a newfound appreciation for separation of powers.

Also, employee advocates probably will not like many of the new rules and regulations issued by Trump appointees such as Labor Secretary nominee Larry Puzder. A prospective abolition of Chevron could be helpful to challenging rules made by a Trump administration. An example from the last Republican administration is instructive. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court in Long Island Care at Home Ltd. v. Coke, 551 U.S. 158 (2007) gave Chevron deference to Bush administration rules to exclude home health aides from coverage under the FLSA. It was nine years later that the rule was overturned, giving Chevron deference to Obama administration rules regarding home health aides and the FLSA.

What Does The Supreme Court's Striking Down Of The Defense Of Marriage Act Mean For Your Social Security Disability Benefits?

The United States Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act

Today’s post comes from guest author Barbara Tilker, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated the Fifth Amendment and is therefore unconstitutional. While DOMA was in effect, the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages that were performed in states where they are legal, such as New York.  This meant that the Social Security Administration was unable to pay certain benefits to individuals who would have otherwise been entitled to them if they were married to someone of the opposite sex. As this part of the law has been struck down, validly married same-sex couples should be treated identically to opposite-sex couples by the Social Security Administration. 

There are several Social Security benefits that married individuals are entitled to that unmarried individuals are not.  The two largest programs are survivor benefits and disabled widow(er)s benefits. A surviving spouse can now be entitled to benefits on a deceased spouse’s earnings record once they attain age 60 or are disabled and age 50. These benefits, once only available to opposite-sex couples, should now be extended to same-sex couples as well. Stepchildren may now also be entitled to benefits on a worker’s earnings record, if the worker is either deceased or receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits. 

The Social Security Administration relies on state law to determine if a person was legally married. Social Security looks at the law of the state where a person was living at the time of their death to determine if their marriage was valid. It’s possible that a same-sex couple could be married in New York (or another state where same-sex marriage is legal) and then move to a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage.  According to Social Security’s current rules, the Administration would look to the rules of the state where the person lived at the time of their death to determine if the marriage was valid. 

At first glance, this seems to mean that validly married same-sex couples could be denied benefits they would have been entitled to if they didn’t move. However, Social Security also recognizes a “deemed marriage” provision. In simple terms, if both partners believed themselves to be married, and acted like a married couple, and the only reason they are not validly married is “a legal impediment not known to the applicant” at the time of the marriage ceremony, Social Security will consider the marriage to be valid for benefit purposes.

We don’t know yet how Social Security will enact these provisions or what the end result will be. However, it appears clear to us that many people who were being denied benefits because of who they love will now be entitled to them. 

Overturning DOMA Will Increase LGBT Rights in the Workplace

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

The impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act will be felt in the workplace.

First of all, overturning DOMA will expand anti-discrimination protections and partner benefits to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees who are employed by the federal government.

Overturning DOMA will also probably benefit LGBT employees not working for the federal government. One argument is that banning LGBT discrimination in federal employment will ease acceptance of extending anti-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers in the workforce as a whole. Legislation has been introduced that would explicitly extend protections of federal and state fair-employment statutes to LGBT workers.

From a political point of view, explicitly extending fair-employment statutes to cover LGBT workers probably won’t be feasible until at least 2015, depending on the outcome of the 2014 elections. Politicians in “red states” in both parties may be wary of conservative backlash if they support extending fair-employment practices. That same reticence will probably be displayed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who needs to Democrats to win in several conservative states in order to hold on to the majority.

But the recent decision overturning DOMA may further open the door to judicially expanding employment statutes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Justice Anthony Kennedy and the liberal bloc struck down DOMA on Fifth/14th Amendment equal-protection grounds. If states can’t discriminate against gays in marriage on equal-protection grounds, it doesn’t make logical sense that the Fifth/14th Amendment allows employment discrimination against LGBT workers.

It is arguable that LGBT people already have the protections of our fair-employment laws under the theory of sex-plus discrimination that prohibits discrimination based on sexual stereotypes. In Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals extended protections under the sex-plus theory to a male firefighter who started identifying as a woman. In Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, the conservative Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a finding of possible finding of sex discrimination for a woman who was described by her boss as having “an Ellen DeGeneres kind of look.” Though the Eighth Circuit didn’t make any reference to sexual orientation in the decision, it is obvious that “Ellen DeGeneres” is a code word for “lesbian.” It makes sense to me that opposite-sex attraction is a stereotype for each gender and that discrimination against LGBT people should be covered under the theory of sex-plus discrimination. I think courts will be increasingly be forced to rule that way in the wake of the decision on DOMA stating that discrimination against gays and lesbians runs afoul of the Fifth/14th Amendments. Another possible factor working in favor of expanding fair-employment protections to LGBT workers are recent Supreme Court decisions interpreting federal fair-employment law favorably for employers. It’s easy to conceive of a moderately conservative judge in the mode of Justice Kennedy judicially extending fair-employment law to gays and lesbians with the understanding that it will likely be more difficult employees to win fair-employment suits.

Until Congress and/or our state legislatures act, LGBT employees are not guaranteed equal rights at work. But thanks to the decision overturning DOMA, I think courts will be more open to extending workplace rights to the LGBT community, regardless of what is done in the legislative branch.