The first Monday in October’s come and gone — meaning the Supreme Court’s back in session. And there are several key cases on the docket that employers will want to keep an eye on.
The best-known case of this term is undoubtedly NLRB v. Noel Canning, in which the justices will decide if President Obama’s “recess appointments” of three federal Labor Board members are valid.
The Obama administration claimed the president used his recess appointment powers to name two Democrats — DOL official Sharon Block and union attorney Richard Griffin — and Republican Terence Flynn during the holidays, when the Senate was supposedly not in session in January, 2012.
But last January, an appeals court in Washington, DC ruled that the Senate was in “pro-forma” session — so Obama’s NLRB appointments were unconstitutional.
The ruling came out of a case filed by Noel Canning, which was challenging an NLRB ruling that the company violated labor law during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with union employees.
Should the Supreme Court decide that the appointments were invalid, it almost certainly means that all actions and decisions coming out of the NLRB between early 2012 and last summer — when Senate Democrats and Republicans struck a deal that officially confirmed new NLRB members — would be wiped off the books.
Sandifer v. U.S. Steel
This case turns on the question of the legal definition of two words: “changing clothes.” U.S. Steel is a unionized workplace, and under federal law, an employer doesn’t have to pay workers for time spent changing into work clothes, if such a restriction is part of the collective bargaining agreement. U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers Union had such a clause in their CBA.
A group of steelworkers sued, saying they should be paid for the time they spent getting outfitted for work because they weren’t just “changing clothes,” they were donning protective gear — safety garments that weren’t optional.
A federal appeals court rejected the steelworkers’ argument.
Although this case concerns a union environment, it could have implications for non-union workplaces, too. The FLSA requires workers to be paid for performing a “principal activity” of a specific job, and if the Supreme Court decides that the steelworkers are engaged in such an activity in donning the safety clothing, it could widen employers’ exposure to wage claims.
Harris v. Quinn
This case concerns the practice of non-union workers being required to pay for union representations.
Gwen Morales, Sally Scott and Lindsey Marcus lay out the issue in a Franczek Radelet blog post:
The Supreme Court has long approved collective bargaining agreements that compel non-union members to financially support the costs of collective bargaining representation, as well as other related costs, as long as they are not used to support political candidates or views.
In Harris, a group of in-home health care workers, who, by Illinois state law, are considered state employees for purposes of collective bargaining, elected by majority vote to be represented by a union. The resulting collective bargaining agreement with the state covered workers who had not voted for union representation and required all workers to pay a fair share of union dues.
A group of workers who opposed union representation brought suit, challenging the requirement that they pay union dues as a violation of their First Amendment rights. The case may lead the Court to reconsider its prior decisions requiring all covered employees, not just union members, to pay the portion of union dues that support collective bargaining representation.
And one for your payroll people …
In United States v. Quality Stores, the Supreme Court will decide whether severance payments made to employees whose employment is involuntarily terminated are subject to federal taxes.
Quality Stores challenged a federal requirement to pay Social Security and Medicare and demanded a refund of the $1,000,125 it had paid in taxes on severance packages for laid-off employees.
The Sixth Circuit held that severance paid to employees on account of an involuntary reduction in force isn’t subject to taxes. That decision created a split among the circuit courts on the issue, leaving the question up to the Supreme Court.