Michael J. Davey, Esq. mdavey@eckellsparks.com 610.565.3700

Monday, June 20, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court: Wal-Mart Class Action Too Big; No Commonality

In the closely watched case of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, et al., the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday torpedoed what would have been the largest class-action lawsuit in American history against the nation's largest private employer.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the proposed class, which would have consisted of approximately 1.5 million current and former female employees of Wal-Mart, who have alleged the presence of a corporate culture of gender and sex discrimination against women, failed to meet the "commonality" requirement for permissible class certification.

"Commonality" is a prerequisite set forth in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires that there exist "questions of law or fact common to the class," before a group may properly be certified as a class. One of the tests by which commonality may be established is by setting forth "significant proof" that an employer "operated under a general policy of discrimination."

In short, the majority held that significant proof of a "general policy of discrimination" on behalf of Wal-Mart was entirely absent in this case. The majority noted that not only was plaintiff's sociological expert unable to provide a definitive opinion on this issue, but also that Wal-Mart's corporate policy is to provide each of its local supervisors with discretion over employment matters - a policy that is, by definition, the opposite of having the type of uniform employment practice that is needed to establish commonality for purposes of class certification.

The majority also held that the plaintiffs had failed to identify and challenge a specific employment practice that was alleged to be discriminatory and which was common to all 1.5 million class members.

The Court's decision to deny certification in this case is significant in that it will have a significant impact upon future discrimination claims against large employers, undoubtedly making it harder for plaintiffs to achieve class-status. Class-actions are, in many instances, the only real vehicles by which discriminatory policies or actions by large or multi-national employers can be successfully challenged. As compared to small, individual claims, class-actions with numerous class members often carry with them the prospect of very large verdicts that can quickly change (or destroy) a corporate image and bottom-line. Additionally, the economics of many discrimination claims (such as wage-and-hour claims) are simply not worth an attorney's time or money prosecuting on behalf of a single employee, as the potential recoverable damages often cannot justify the time and expense necessary to prevail through trial. Unfortunately, if class-actions now become harder to certify and maintain following this case, the sad truth is that many instances of discrimination or employment law violations may simply go unchecked or unchallenged.

You can read the Supreme Court's full opinion in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, et al. here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/10-277.pdf

U.S. Supreme Court: Complaints By Public Employees Under Constitution's "Petition Clause" Only Protected If Related To Matters of Public Concern

In Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a public employee who makes a complaint to a governmental employer under the "Petition Clause" of the U.S. Constitution is only protected from retaliation where the petition involves a matter of public concern. This decision harmonizes public employee complaints under the First Amendment's "Petition Clause" with prior Supreme Court decisions involving public employee complaints under the First Amendment's "Free Speech" clause.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects "the right of the people. . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," (called the "Petition Clause") as well as the people's right to "freedom of speech (called the "Speech Clause)." This case concerned the extent to which public employees are protected by the Petition Clause when they make routine complaints to governmental employers.

Guarnieri was a police chief for a local borough in Pennsylvania, who filed a union grievance against the borough, challenging his termination. Following a subsequent arbitration, Guarnieri was ordered to be reinstated by the borough. After his reinstatement, borough council issued 11 written directives to Guarnieri concerning the performance of his duties. Guarnieri then filed a lawsuit against the borough, arguing that his original union grievance was a "petition" that was protected by the First Amendment's Petition Clause, and that the 11 directives that were subsequently issued by borough council were issued illegally in retaliation for Guarnieri's protected activity in filing a petition.

Diverging from the decisions of other Circuits, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and held that Guarnieri's petition (in the form of his union grievance), was protected under the Petition Clause, even if the content of that petition did not address a matter of public concern.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, and reversed the decision of the Third Circuit. In a 7-2 decision, with Justice Thomas filing a concurring opinion and Justice Scalia filing an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, the Court held that in order to find protection for complaints to governmental employers filed under the Petition Clause, public employees must be petitioning about a matter of public concern. The majority opinion noted that public employees who complain to their governmental employers enjoy protection from retaliation under the First Amendment's Speech Clause only where their complaints involve "matters of public concern," as opposed to matters of "purely private concern." Given this premise, the majority found no distinguishing reason to treat a public employee's "petition" to a government employer under one section of the First Amendment differently from a public employee's "speech" under a different section of the First Amendment.

Therefore, the Court's majority laid down the following rule: "If a public employee petitions as an employee on a matter of purely private concern, the employee's First Amendment interest must give way, as it does in speech cases. When a public employee petitions as a citizen on a matter of public concern, the employee's First Amendment interest must be balanced against the countervailing interest of the government in the effective and efficient management of its internal affairs. If that balance favors the public employee, the employee's First Amendment claim will be sustained. If the interference with the government's operations is such that the balance favors the employer, the employee's First Amendment claim will fail even though the petition is on a matter of public concern."

You can read the Supreme Court's full decision in Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-1476.pdf

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court: States May Revoke Business Licenses of Employers Who Knowingly Hire Illegal Aliens

In the recent decision of Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting (5/26/2011) the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law that: (1) allows the state to revoke the business licenses of private employers who knowingly or intentionally employ unauthorized aliens; and (2) requires all private employers to use the federal "E-Verify" system to confirm the immigration status of their employees. Following this decision, any other state in the nation may, if it chooses, adopt an employer-licensing law that provides for the same requirements and penalties as the Arizona statute.

The "Legal Arizona Workers Act of 2007" allows Arizona courts to suspend or revoke any necessary business licenses of private employers within Arizona if an employer knowingly or intentionally employs an unauthorized alien. The Act also requires that every private employer, after hiring a new employee, "shall verify the employment eligibility of the employee," using "E-Verify," which is federal internet database maintained by the federal government that allows an employer to receive basic information relating to an employee's work-authorization status. Use of the E-Verify system under federal level is strictly voluntary, as the Secretary of Homeland Security is expressly prohibited from requiring any person or entity outside of the federal government from participating in the E-Verify program.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and various other business groups sued various Arizona public officials charged with administering the Legal Arizona Workers Act of 2007, arguing that the law's provisions were both expressly and impliedly preempted by federal immigration law. After examining the statutory text and operations of both the federal immigration law and the Legal Arizona Workers Act, a 5-3 majority of the Court determined that nothing in the federal immigration law prevented Arizona from adopting, implementing and enforcing the Legal Workers Act as it had.

Going forward, the majority's sanction of the provisions of the Legal Arizona Workers Act opens the door for any other state that wishes to adopt the same manner of enforcement scheme, to pass their own statutes that are identical to Arizona's, without concern over whether it is constitutionally permissible to do so. Whether any states will choose to follow suit and create the same type of license-revocation sanction as exists under Arizona law for an employer's knowing and intentional employment of unauthorized aliens, remains to be seen.

You can read the Court's full opinion in Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-115.pdf