Supreme Court's New Term Filled With Cases Affecting Employers

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

October 6, 2014

The US Supreme Court's new term begins today and includes a number of cases with significant employment law implications. The top workplace issues the justices have decided to hear thus far relate to pregnancy accommodations, religious discrimination, administrative review and wage and hour issues. The Court is likely to add more disputes to its schedule that may be of interest to HR.

Pregnancy Accommodations

The Court will hear the pregnancy discrimination case of Young v. United Parcel Service on December 3. At issue is whether an employer that provides light-duty accommodations to non-pregnant workers must also do so for pregnant employees.

The woman who brought the case was a part-time UPS driver who asked for light-duty work during her pregnancy after being advised to avoid lifting more than 20 pounds. UPS denied the request.

The company provides temporary light-duty accommodations to three classes of drivers, but declined to do so here because it found the driver could not perform the essential functions of her job. UPS won in the lower courts, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) takes a different view.

In an Enforcement Guidance issued in July, the EEOC advised employers that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires them to provide the same benefits and leave to women affected by pregnancy as they provide to other individuals. For example, if an employer provides light duty, alternative assignments, disability leave or unpaid leave to non-pregnant workers, it is required to provide the same benefits to pregnant women.

Addressing this development, New York employment attorney Jason Habinsky of Haynes & Boone said, "It makes perfect sense for employers to take whatever steps they can to reasonably accommodate pregnant women in the workplace, certainly for the time being, until we hear what the Supreme Court says."

Did Abercrombie & Fitch's Appearance Policy Go Too Far?

On October 2, the Court announced it would hear a religious discrimination case involving a Muslim teenager who accuses clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch of rejecting her for a job because she wore a headscarf.

Abercrombie & Fitch had a dress code in place at the time that it described as "classic East Coast collegiate style." The dress code has since been changed.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the employer even though the teenager was wearing the headscarf during her job interview. The appeals court reasoned that the applicant had never directly requested a religious accommodation.

The Obama administration is appealing that decision. Government lawyers contend that the applicant was unaware of Abercrombie's appearance policy and that she should not have borne the entire burden of raising the religious practice issue.

EEOC's Duty to Conciliate

Employers wondering how far the EEOC must go to try to resolve job discrimination charges may soon find out. In early 2015, the Supreme Court will hear a case, Mach Mining v. EEOC, that involves the agency's statutory mandate to try to resolve discrimination charges before it sues an employer.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the EEOC must attempt conciliation with an employer before filing a complaint. However, lower courts have been divided as to what the agency must do to meet its duty in the conciliation process, setting the stage for Supreme Court resolution of the dispute.

Security Screening of Employees

On October 8, the justices will hear a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) case that asks whether employees need to be paid for the time they spend in security screenings that occur before and/or after their shifts.

Under the FLSA, an employer must pay its employees for activities performed before and after their shifts (called preliminary and postliminary activities) only if they are "integral and indispensable" to their principal job duties.

Two appeals courts previously held that security screenings were not indispensable to work. But the 7th Circuit reached a different result in Integrity Staffing v. Busk, which led the Supreme Court to agree to review the case.