In early October, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in the 2009-2010 term. There are currently seven cases on the docket that involve employment and labor related issues or are likely to impact these areas. One of the most notable of these will decide how much time plaintiffs have to file a lawsuit when they believe they have been unfairly penalized by hiring tests. Other cases will resolve issues involv-ing an alleged whistleblower, pension benefits, race discrimination, and labor arbitration.

The key cases scheduled to be addressed by the Court include:

  • Arbitration. On October 7, the justices heard oral argument in Union Pacific Railroad Company v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen General Committee of Adjustment, Central Region. This case, which is the first Railway Labor Act case the Court has agreed to review in over a decade, concerns the scope of federal court review of arbitration decisions in the railroad and airline industries.

On December 9, the justices will hear oral argument in another arbitration case (Stolt-Nielsen S.A., et al. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp.). This case will decide whether arbitration of class claims is required where the parties’ arbitration agreement is silent on that matter. While the underlying suit stemmed from an antitrust conflict, the outcome of this case will likely prove to be relevant in the employment context as well, specifically in deciding whether an employee bringing a claim covered by an arbitration agreement may pursue a class claim on behalf of similarly situated workers.

  • Benefits. The issue in Conkright v. Frommert is whether a plan admini-strator’s action taken pursuant to an express grant of discretionary authority (outside the context of an initial benefits determination) is entitled to judicial deference. The case involves a dispute over the proper remedy for Xerox Corp.’s alleged illegal calculation of pension benefits for employees who left the company and received a lump sum distribution, but were later re-hired. This case has not yet been scheduled for oral argument.
  • Labor. Granite Rock Co. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters involves two issues. The first is whether a federal court or an arbitrator has jurisdiction to decide whether a collective bargaining agreement was formed between a union and employer following lengthy contract negotiations. The second is whether an international union that did not sign the labor contract can be held responsible under the Labor-Management Relations Act for causing the local union to strike. Oral argument on this case is not currently scheduled.
  • Discrimination. The Supreme Court recently agreed to consider whe-ther the deadline for filing disparate impact workplace discrimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act should be 300 days after the discriminatory practice is announced, or 300 days after the employer implements the practice. This case, Lewis v. Chicago, involved a group of African Americans who had applied for jobs as firefighters. Alleging disparate impact race bias, the applicants challenged the City of Chicago’s hiring decisions based on a written examination. The Seventh Circuit ruled that, because the applicants did not file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 300 days of the announcement of the test results, their claims were untimely. Oral argument is currently not scheduled for this case.
  • Other Matters. In addition to these cases, the Court will also consider a number of cases that will have an impact on employment and labor issues, including: whether perceived excessive executive pay will be subject to judicial limits (Jones v. Harris Associates); whether federal courts have jurisdic-tion over whistleblowers suits brought under the False Claims Act which are based on public disclosures made by state and local governments (Graham County Soil & Water Conservation District v. United States of America); the constitutionality of a federal campaign finance law restricting direct contributions by corporations and unions in federal election campaigns (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission); and whether a reasonable attorneys’ fees award under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act may in-clude an enhancement based on superior representation and exceptional results (Perdue v. Kenny A).

Finally, on October 5, the opening day of the term, the justices heard oral argument in Mohawk Industries, Inc. v. Carpenter. This case will decide whe-ther an employer may immediately appeal a district court’s discovery order to disclose materials that the company claims is covered by the attorney-client privilege. The case was brought by a former shift supervisor who sued his employer and several managers for witness intimidation in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The worker claimed that the company fired him because he refused to recant allegations that the company employed illegal workers. The company, on the other hand, alleged that it fired the worker because he harbored workers he believed were unauthorized to work in the United States.

Note: This article was published in the September/October 2009 issue of The Employment Law Authority.

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