Employment Law Cases on High Court’s Docket
As the U.S. Supreme Court returns for a new term, at least two employment law cases on its docket should be of particular interest to employers and human resource professionals.
In one case, Vance v. Ball State University, the Court has been asked to resolve a split of opinion among the federal circuits regarding the definition of “supervisor” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Some circuits have ruled that a supervisor is an individual with direct power to hire, fire, demote or discipline; other circuits, in contrast, have said that a supervisor is simply one who directs and oversees other employees’ daily work. The Second Circuit, which covers Connecticut, has taken the latter, broader view.
The Vance issue has significant implications for employers in harassment and discrimination cases, where an employer generally is automatically liable for severe or pervasive harassment or discrimination by a supervisor, but is liable for actions by a co-worker only if the employer was negligent or knew or should have known of the harassment. If the high court goes with the broader view: that a supervisor is an individual who directs others’ work, without hire or fire power: it could mean a greater number of cases where employers are strictly liable.
In the other case, Genesis Health Corp. v. Symczyk, the court will consider whether a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) must be dismissed when the lone named plaintiff receives an offer from the defendant to satisfy all of her claims. The employee had filed an FLSA lawsuit on behalf of herself and other unnamed plaintiffs, intending to seek class action certification later and recruit additional plaintiffs.
Before she could obtain certification, her employer offered full unpaid wages and other costs, everything she would have been expected to win if she prevailed in the lawsuit. The employee ignored the offer, but her employer asked the lower court to dismiss the suit, and the court agreed to, saying the named plaintiff no longer had a vested interest in the case. A ruling from the high court in favor of the employer would make it more difficult for employees to file the types of FLSA class actions that have become prevalent.
The Court will likely agree to hear additional employment cases as the term goes on. Some outstanding requests for review include cases involving the Family and Medical Leave Act, freedom of speech for union workers, retaliation under Sarbanes-Oxley and preemption under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
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