Solicitor General Reverses Position in Murphy Oil

This post is part of OnLabor’s continuing analysis of National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA.

Despite previously submitting a petition for writ of certiorari for the National Labor Relations Board, the Solicitor General’s office has reversed its position in the consolidated cases of Murphy Oil USA, Epic Systems, and Ernst & Young and urges that the Supreme Court find that class action waivers are enforceable.  In an amicus brief submitted to the Court on Friday, the Solicitor General’s office explained that it has rethought its support for the Board after the election of President Trump.  The Solicitor General’s office writes:

“We do not believe that the Board in its prior unfair-labor-practice proceedings, or the government’s certiorari petition in Murphy Oil, gave adequate weight to the congressional policy favoring enforcement of arbitration agreements that is reflected in the FAA.  More specifically, the Board’s view that the phrase “other concerted activities” in 29 U.S.C. 157 encompasses participation in collective or class litigation may reflect a permissible interpretation of that language, such that an employer might commit an unfair labor practice by discharging employees who initiated or joined such suits in accordance with other provisions of law.  It does not follow, however, that Section 157 expands the range of circumstances in which such litigation can go forward, by allowing employees who validly waived their collective-litigation rights under the FLSA to escape the consequences of that choice.  The Board’s approach fails to respect the FAA’s directive that arbitration agreements should be enforced unless they run afoul of arbitration-neutral rules of contract validity.”

This reading of the two statutes is a sharp departure from the government’s position in its petition for writ of certiorari where the Solicitor General argued:

“the ability to engage in concerted activities under the NLRA is not a mere procedural means for vindicating some other statutory right. It is, as the Board has concluded, ‘the core substantive right protected by the NLRA and is the foundation on which the Act and Federal labor policy rest….This Court has never held that arbitration agreements may waive such substantive rights or be given effect in contravention of the statutes that create and protect those rights.”

Again, the full amicus brief is available here.

The Sixth Circuit Holds that Class Arbitration Waivers Are Prohibited Under the NLRA

This post is part of OnLabor’s continuing analysis of National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA.

Bloomberg BNA reports that in National Labor Relations Board v. Alternative Entertainment, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit joins the Seventh and Ninth Circuits in upholding the NLRB’s position and finding that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prevents employers from requiring their employees to pursue workplace-related claims individually.  In contrast, the Fifth and Eighth Circuits’ reading of the Federal Arbitration Act allows class arbitration waiver provisions to be held enforceable despite the NLRB’s claim that this kind of arbitration provision violates Section 7 of the NLRA.

This decision comes two weeks before opening briefs are due in the consolidated case of Murphy Oil, Epic Systems, and Ernst and Young before the Supreme Court.  In the consolidated case, the Supreme Court will be asked to resolve the circuit split.

How Bad Could it Get (Legally)?

It’s a good moment to think creatively and expansively about how to revitalize the U.S. labor movement.  This important work is underway, with contributions from academics, labor lawyers, union organizers, and others.  Substantive debates about the future of labor law and labor organizing now populate the pages of publications ranging from the Yale Law Journal to Boston Review.  Much of this writing evidences an appropriate degree of optimism – the pieces assume a future in which, for example, progressive law reform might be possible, or in which workers can regain power through increased use of strikes even in the absence of law reform, or in which fundamental aspects of U.S. political economy (and political ideology) might be transformed.  This kind of optimism is necessary to visionary thinking, and it’s badly needed today.

But, I thought it might also be worth writing from the opposite perspective and asking how bad it might really/plausibly get over the next handful of years.  Most of us know much of this already, so you might wonder what the point of such a morose exercise would be.  The idea is not to wallow.  To the contrary, the idea is that putting in one place the major pieces of what could go wrong (legally) over the next few years could help as we continue to imagine and build a better future for the labor movement. As Van Jones put it recently, “hope for the best but expect and prepare for the worst.”

Some caveats.  One, and most important, what follows are not predictions, and I do not mean to suggest that these things are likely.  Instead, these are thoughts about the kinds of negative developments that seem within the realm of the possible (even though, with respect to every one, I think the better arguments are on the other side). Two, given the limits of my expertise, I focus exclusively on how bad labor law could get, leaving to others the question of how bad things could get on other fronts.  Three, I may be wrong in two directions: omitting other possible problems and including things that aren’t plausible.  For that reason, we invite follow-on posts that offer either kind of corrective. Four, and finally, it might be worth saying that this exercise goes against my own nature, which, for better or worse, skews optimistic (as I’ve been critiqued for being).

All that said, here’s what seems within the realm of the plausible: Continue reading

Today’s News & Commentary — April 25, 2017

The Supreme Court will soon be presented with the opportunity to decide whether unions can constitutionally charge non-members “fair share” fees.  According to Bloomberg BNA, “the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation intends by the end of May to file a petition asking the high court to review a Seventh Circuit decision dismissing a lawsuit by two Illinois government workers who challenged the fees on First Amendment grounds.”  The Supreme Court heard a similar challenge in 2016, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but ultimately ruled 4-4 following the death of Justice Scalia, thus affirming a lower court decision finding that public-sector unions may continue to collect “fair share” fees from nonmembers.  The Seventh Circuit similarly upheld such fees in the case at issue now.

Using colorful language about a boss does not deprive a worker of the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, according to the Second Circuit.  Consumerist reports that the Second Circuit found that the operator of restaurants at New York’s Chelsea Piers illegally terminated a worker in retaliation for engaging in protected activity when, two days before a unionization vote, the worker posted a colorful Facebook post about his boss in urging support for unionization.  The Second Circuit concluded that “the NLRB could reasonably determine that the server’s “outburst was not an idiosyncratic reaction to a manager’s request but part of a tense debate over managerial mistreatment in the period before the representation election.”

America’s male-dominated industries want to diversity.  Per the Chicago Tribune, the “Iron Workers union this month leaped to the cutting edge of the effort, becoming the first building trades union to offer up to eight months of paid maternity leave to pregnant women and new moms” despite only 2 percent of union members being women.  The union and other traditionally male-dominated employers are driven to recruit women by the aging of baby boomers, a decline in enrollment in vocational education, and other factors.

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Beware of Judge Gorsuch’s Profoundly Anti-Democratic, Anti-Regulatory Vision

Not surprisingly, at Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, the Democratic Senators didn’t succeed in getting Judge Gorsuch to reveal much about his views.  Instead, Gorsuch insisted that “if I were to start telling you which are my favorite precedents or which are my least favorite precedents or view it in that fashion, I would be tipping my hand and suggesting to litigants I already made up my mind about their cases.  That’s not a fair judge.” But, Gorsuch has already done exactly that, writing an unusual concurring opinion that criticized Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a unanimous 1984 Supreme Court decision that has been reaffirmed many times.  Gorsuch’s critique of Chevron merits a close look because it reveals a vision that is profoundly anti-democratic and that makes it exceedingly difficult to rein in large corporations.

In Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, Judge Gorsuch wrote a 23 page concurrence arguing that Chevron should be overturned.  At his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch explained his actions by saying, “my job is when I see a problem to tell my boss.”  I can’t help noting that only a judge who has forgotten what it’s like to have a real boss would describe the Supreme Court justices as his “bosses,” since they have no ability to affect either his job tenure or his working conditions.  As Eric Posner has pointed out, Gorsuch’s views on Chevron place him far outside the mainstream, and to understand why, it’s worth reviewing both the holding and the rationale for the Chevron decision.  Chevron involved the validity of regulations adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (ironically under the leadership of Gorsuch’s mother) during the Reagan Administration. The regulations at issue were challenged by environmental groups, who argued that they were inconsistent with the purposes underlying the Clean Air Act.  The Court held that if a statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to a specific issue, the court should not simply impose its own construction on the statute, but instead should defer to the construction of the agency charged with administering that statute as long as the agency’s interpretation is “reasonable.”  This means that sometimes the Court will uphold the agency’s construction even though the Court might have reached a different result if the question had initially arisen in a judicial proceeding.

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Supreme Court Postpones Hearing Class Action Waiver Cases

This post is part of OnLabor’s continuing analysis of National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA.

As reported by Law360, the Supreme Court has informed the parties in Murphy Oil, Ernst & Young, and Epic Systems that the Court will postpone oral argument until next term, which begins in October 2017.  The Court granted certiorari in January.  Law360 points out that Judge Neil Gorsuch will likely be confirmed to the Court by this fall, assuming that Senate Democrats do not decline to confirm his nomination.  Some followers of the Court believed the justices would be evenly split on the enforceability of class action waivers in employment contracts, and Gorsuch could provide the tie-breaking vote.  A separate Law360 piece analyzing Gorsuch’s previous arbitration agreement and class action decisions suggested that “employers may have reason to be optimistic” in Murphy Oil with Gorsuch on the Court.

Gorsuch’s Judicial Approach and Workplace Protection

When Judge Neil Gorsuch accepted his nomination to the Supreme Court, he professed modesty about his role on the Court, if he is confirmed.  He proclaimed that it is the role of judges to “apply not alter the work of the people’s representatives.”  But, unfortunately, Judge Gorsuch’s record casts serious doubt on whether he would truly respect the role of Congress when it comes to drafting legislation that protects the well-being of the American people.  A recent case involving a truck driver who was fired for leaving his load to take refuge after waiting two and a half hours without heat on a sub-freezing night illustrates how Judge Gorsuch’s approach to the law would endanger workers and the public.

For 150 years, Congress has drafted remedial legislation with the understanding that the courts would liberally construe the provisions of the laws to accomplish their ends.  Here’s what Representative Samuel Shellabarger, the author and manager of the 1871 Civil Rights Act said regarding that Act: “This act is remedial, and in aid of the preservation of human liberty and human rights.  All statutes and constitutional provisions authorizing such statutes are liberally and beneficially construed.  It would be most strange, and in civilized law, monstrous were this not the rule of interpretation.  As has been again and again decided by your own Supreme Court of the United States … the largest latitude consistent with the words employed is uniformly given in construing such statutes….”

Nor was that just the wishful thinking of a legislator.  Even in 1930, during the height of what we refer to as the Lochner era, a unanimous Supreme Court acknowledged that the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a law designed to protect injured workers, was “to be construed liberally to fulfill the purposes for which it was enacted.”  Thus, the Court held that even though the statute only imposed liability on railroads for injuries that resulted from the “negligence” of the railroad’s agents or employees, it was proper to impose liability where a foreman assaulted a worker.  The Court explained that since the employer would clearly be liable if the worker’s injuries “had been caused by mere inadvertence or carelessness on the part of the offending foreman it would be unreasonable and in conflict with the purpose of Congress to hold that the assault, a much graver breach of duty, was not negligence within the meaning of the Act.”

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