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U.S. Supreme Court - Labor & Employment Decisions (2009-2010 Term)


August 10, 2010

A Review of the Supreme Court’s 2009 – 2010 Term

By: Allison L. Goico

As the United States Supreme Court’s 2009-2010 term drew to a close, commentators remarked on the evolution of the Roberts Court. Justice Roberts continued to emerge as a key figure this term, as he was a member of the majority 92 percent of the time, more than any other justice. While his majority percentage may suggest to some a willingness to compromise with his more liberal colleagues on certain issues, he also clearly demonstrated firm convictions on important issues such as campaign finance and gun rights, which yielded some the most highly publicized decisions of the term. Indeed, the Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, which invalidated legislation imposing limits on corporate spending in elections, has led some commentators to conclude that the Roberts Court is ushering in era where business interests will reign supreme.

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Case Updates for 2009 - 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Term


Granite Rock Co. v. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters

Issue:  Does a federal court have jurisdiction to determine the existence of a binding collective bargaining agreement? Does Section 301(a) of the Labor-Management Relations Act provide an employer with a cause of action against an international union for allegedly interfering with the employer’s collective bargaining agreement with a local union affiliated with that international?

Status:  Decided on June 24, 2010.

Result:  The Supreme Court found that disputes over the effective date of a collective bargaining agreement containing an arbitration clause were properly resolved by the courts. A unanimous court also refused to recognize a new federal cause of action under § 301(a) of the LMRA for the union’s alleged tortious interference with the collective bargaining agreement.

Read the Court's Decision

Rent-A-Center West, Inc. v. Jackson

Issue:  Whether a district court, rather than an arbitrator, must decide whether an arbitration agreement subject to the Federal Arbitration Act is unconscionable, despite a provision in the agreement giving arbitrators the exclusive authority to resolve disputes over enforceability of the agreement.

Status:  Decided on June 21, 2010.

Result: The Court held that while a district court decides the enforceability of an agreement to arbitrate if the party specifically challenges that provision, if a party challenges the enforceability of the agreement as a whole, the decision is the arbitrator's.

Read the Court's decision

New Process Steel, LP v. NLRB

Issue: Whether the National Labor Relations Act authorizes the National Labor Relations Board to act when only two of its five positions are filled.   

Status: Decided on June 17, 2010.

Result:  The Court held that the Act requires the Board to maintain at least 3 members in the group to which the Board’s authority has been delegated for the Board to take valid action. Based on the Supreme Court’s ruling if the number of Board members in the group drops below three at any time the Board cannot act.

Read our detailed summary | Read the Court's decision

Ontario, Cal. v. Quon

Issue: Whether a police sergeant assigned to a SWAT team has a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages transmitted on a Police Department-issued pager and stored by an outside service provider, where the Department has an official no-privacy policy but where an informal policy of allowing some personal use of the pagers existed.

Status:  Decided on June 17, 2010.

Result:  The Court held that the city’s review of two months’ worth of text messages on a police officer’s city-issued pager was reasonable where the city was concerned that, among other things, it might be paying for employees’ personal use of those pagers. Notably, the Court took pains to limit its holding to the particular facts of the case, making clear that it wished to avoid defining the contours of employee privacy rights on new technology before the role of the technology in the workplace and society become clear.

Read our detailed summary | Read the Court's decision

Lewis et al. v. City of Chicago

Issue:  When an employer adopts an employment practice that discriminates against African-Americans in violation of Title VII’s disparate impact provision, must a plaintiff file an EEOC charge within 300 days after the announcement of the practice, or may a plaintiff file the charge within 300 days after the employer’s use of the discriminatory practice? 

Status: Decided on May 24, 2010.

Result:  A plaintiff who does not file a timely charge challenging the adoption of a particular employment practice may nevertheless assert a disparate impact claim that challenges the employer’s subsequent application of that practice.

Read our detailed summary | Read the Court's Decision

Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co.

Issue: Whether ERISA provides a district court with discretion to award reasonable attorney’s fees only to a prevailing party.

Status: Decided on May 24, 2010.

Result: The Court held that an ERISA claimant may be entitled to attorney’s fees as long as there is "some degree of success on the merits."

Read the Court's Decision

Stolt-Nielsen v. AnimalFeeds Int'l Corp.

Issue:  Can arbitration of class claims be required when a contractual arbitration provision does not expressly address class action arbitrations?

Status: Decided on April 27, 2010

Result:  The Court found that arbitrators cannot decide class action styled arbitration claims unless an arbitration agreement specifically provides for it. This ruling, however, may not become the boon that it seems for employers. An argument can be made that the decision does not apply in the context of employment claims because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees the right to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of mutual aid or protection. Employers that interfere with those rights commit unfair labor practices. So, theory being, employers that impose arbitration on employees—but at the same time prohibit them from banding together to arbitrate their claims—unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights protected the NLRA. Employers therefore should use caution before creating policies that require arbitration of employment claims, but also exclude class action claims or prohibit class-wide relief.

Read our detailed summary | Read the Court's Decision

Conkright v. Frommert

Issue:  Do federal courts have an obligation to defer to ERISA plan administrators' interpretations of their plans if the administrators arrive at their interpretation outside the context of an administrative claim for benefits? Does a federal district court have "allowable discretion" to adopt any "reasonable" interpretation of the terms of an ERISA plan when the plan interpretation issue arises in the course of calculating additional benefits due under the plan as a result of an ERISA violation?

Status:  Decided on April 21, 2010.

Result:  Recognizing the complexities involved in the work of benefit plan administrators, the Court ruled that administrators of ERISA plans that provide for discretionary review are entitled to deferential judicial review of their plan interpretations, even if a previous interpretation of the same plan provision was unreasonable.

Read the Court's Decision

Perdue v. Kenny

Issue:  Can a court increase an attorney fee award under a federal fee shifting statute based solely upon the quality of performance and results obtained by the plaintiff’s attorney? 

Status: Decided on April 21, 2010

Result:  The Supreme Court unanimously held that an attorneys' fees award made under a federal fee-shifting statute in a civil rights case can include an enhancement for superior attorney performance.

Read the Court's Decision

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