Supreme Court’s New Term Features Key Labor and Employment Disputes

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This week marks the start of the Supreme Court’s new term. It’s been little more than three months since the Court ended its last term by legalizing same-sex marriage and rebuffing the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

While the Court’s 2015-2016 schedule does not yet include a case of that magnitude, there are still some notable labor and employment law cases on the docket with others likely to be added. Here are three issues to be decided that employment and labor watchers cannot afford to miss:

1.    Future of Public Employee Unions

The Supreme Court will soon hear a landmark labor case challenging the mandatory union dues that nearly all California teachers are required to pay. Since 1977, unions have generally been allowed to collect dues from all public or private employees whether they belong to a union or not, so long as the fees are related to collective bargaining issues such as wage disputes and contract negotiations. But the future of that practice is now in doubt.

The case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association presents a direct challenge to the collection of these mandatory union dues. A group of teachers object on First Amendment grounds to being compelled to support the union in this manner. And since the state’s public employee unions represent hundreds of thousands of workers, the stakes are significant.

Union supporters argue that all public employees must pay union dues to prevent a “free rider” problem of workers who benefit through higher pay from collectively bargained agreements without having contributed to the negotiation cost.

2.    Fair Credit Reporting Act

Can an internet people-search company be sued for displaying false information about a Virginia man to potential employers? This intriguing Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) question in Spokeo v. Robins has attracted the attention of leading tech giants Google, Facebook, eBay and Yahoo, all of which are backing Spokeo.

FCRA sets standards for how consumer credit information is collected, stored and shared. And as some employers have learned the hard way, hefty settlements can result for those that misuse information under FCRA.

Thomas Robins claims Spokeo damaged his employment prospects by displaying inaccurate details about his job status, educational background, age and wealth. But the company defends that Robins cannot show how he was financially harmed by the incorrect information. It also argues that as a people-search engine rather than a credit reporting agency, it falls outside the scope of FCRA coverage.

The Obama administration disagrees and is siding with Robins. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case in early November.

3.    Costly Wage-and-Hour Class Action

Also early next month, the justices will examine a $5.8 million class action award involving more than 3,000 workers at a Tyson Foods pork-processing plant in Iowa. The workers claim Tyson violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay them for time spent donning and doffing their protective equipment as well as for time spent walking to and from their work stations.

But on appeal, Tyson argues that many of the workers suffered no actual injury. At trial, the workers were allowed to prove damages to the class by likening all class members to an “average employee.” The company claims this statistical sampling was in error.

How the Supreme Court resolves the case could affect many employment-related class actions. In 2011, the Court held 5-4 in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes that a class of 1.5 million female workers should not have been certified since there was no proof the women had suffered the same injury. If the justices take a similar view of the Tyson case, then the damages award could be in jeopardy.

4.    And That’s Not All…

The Court often adds its most contentious cases after the term has begun. The most notable hot-button issue percolating where the justices could grant review is a sequel to the 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling, in which the Court allowed for-profit companies to seek religious exemptions from the ACA’s contraceptive coverage requirements.

The latest birth control dispute involves a series of challenges brought by religious-affiliated employers who claim having to offer contraceptive coverage to their employees, even indirectly through third parties, violates those employers’ religious freedoms.

What do you think is the biggest employment issue crying out for Supreme Court review? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or by connecting with me on Twitter @DavidWeisenfeld.

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