U.S. Supreme Court to Define "Clothes"!

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in,Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., a case involving compensable time under the FLSA. In the underlying case, a group of steel workers filed suit against their employer, U.S. Steel Corp., for unpaid wages for time spent putting on and taking off safety clothes necessary to perform their jobs. The clothing included, flame retardant pants and jackets, work gloves and boots, a hard hat, safety glasses, ear plugs, and a shood. (A picture of a man modeling the gear is apparently found in the opinion of the underlying case, but I can't seem to find a link!).  Other issues were discussed in the case, but the only question that the Supreme Court will answer is "what constitutes 'changing clothes' within the meaning of section 203(o)?"

Generally, "donning and doffing" protective gear, clothing, and uniforms is compensable time under the FLSA. The clothing being put on by the steelworkers most certainly qualifies as protective gear so this case seems open and shut. Right?!  The key factor in this case is the terms of the collective bargaining agreement in place. The agreement specifically provided that employees would not be compensated for the time spent putting on their protective clothing. Again this seems like an open and shut issue because typically, employees cannot waive their right to wages under the FLSA. However, Section 203(o) allows for a genuine collective bargaining agreement to exclude time spent "changing clothes" from compensable time.


And this is where the issue arises. What is meant by the term "changing clothes"? Is protective gear "clothes" within the meaning of Section 203(o)? The 7th Circuit believed it to be. The 7th Circuit found that despite the protective nature of the items being put on by the employees, the items were "clothes" and the action of taking the protective gear off and on was properly excluded from compensable time in the collective bargaining.


The Department of Labor issued an opinion on this matter in mid-2010. It determined that protective gear does not qualify as "clothes" under Section 203(o). The only circuit that seems to agree with the DOL is the 9th Circuit, with all other Circuits that have passed on the issue siding with the 7th Circuit. The 8th Circuit, which Iowa is a part of, has not decided the issue.

US Supreme Court to Decide Who is a "Supervisor"

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear argument in Vance v. Ball State University. The facts of the case are not novel. Vance, an African-American, alleged that certain supervisors and co-workers discriminated against and harassed her based on her race. In one short paragraph, the Seventh Circuit determined that one of the purported supervisors was not a supervisor because that individual did not have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer or discipline Vance. It then moved on to deal with the remaining individuals and claims. 

It is that short paragraph from which the issue arises. That being, whether "supervisor" liability under Title VII applies to harassment by those whom the employer vests with authority to direct and oversee their victim's daily work or is limited to those who have the power to "hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline" their victim. The distinction is important because under Title VII employers are strictly liable for harassment perpetrated by "supervisors". Alternatively, employers are liable for harassment perpetrated by co-workers only if the employer was negligent in discovering or remedying the alleged harassment. Roughly, an employer who takes preventative and corrective steps can avoid liability in co-worker harassment situations but not in supervisor harassment situations. 


The Eighth Circuit, of which Iowa is a part, agrees with the Seventh Circuit--only those who have the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline are supervisors. Therefore, if the Supreme Court agrees with the Seventh Circuit not much will change with respect to how cases are decided in our jurisdiction. If, however, the Supreme Court decides that supervisors include those who direct and oversee daily work employers in Iowa will be open to increased risk in harassment lawsuits. 


Oral argument in this case should occur in the Fall, with an opinion sometime after that.

US Supreme Court Adopts Ministerial Exception to Discrimination Laws

In the unanimous Hosana-Tabor v. EEOC decision issued January 11, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized for the first time a "ministerial exception" to virtually all forms of employment discrimination. The "ministerial exception" as announced by the Court is not a prohibition against asserting claims against religious organizations, rather an affirmative defense.

The facts of the case are straightforward: Cheryl Perich was employed by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School as a "lay" teach in 1999. In 2000, she completed requirements to become a "called" teacher. A called teach has the formal title: "Minister of Religion, Commissioned." She taught mainly secular subjects, but did teach a religion class four days a week, led the students in prayer and devotional exercises each day, and attended a weekly school-wide chapel service. In 2004 she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, which required her to begin the 2004-2005 school year on disability leave. On January 27, 2005, she notified the school that she was able to return to school. The school principal responded by saying that her position had been filled and the school was concerned that she was not ready to return. On January 30, 2005 the church congregation voted to release Perich from her call and offering what amounted to a severance payment in return for a resignation. Perich declined and was terminated.


The Court discussed the history and implications of the Religion Clause contained in the First Amendment. The Court then recognized the "ministerial exception" stating:


The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According to the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.


The Court then concluded that Perich's position was that of a minister; therefore, the employment laws, specifically the Americans with Disability Act, did not apply. The court considered her calling, title, and circumstances surrounding her commissioning among other facts. The Court did note that title alone will not necessarily mean a church employee is a "minister".   The Court did not find it dispositive that Perich performed similar duties to that of lay teachers. Nor, did the Court find that the individual being considered a minister perform exclusively religious functions.


It is apparent that churches and religious organizations have wide discretion over their employment decisions, but should still be cautious when making those decisions.

High Court Rules in Favor of Frustrating Free Speech

About a year ago, I reported on the Westboro Baptist Church and their protest of a Drake University forum on campus.  If you'll recall, Westboro is the outfit that protests at military funerals claiming that military deaths are God's response to the US Government sanctioning homosexuality.  At the time of my first entry, the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear a case where a father of a fallen soldier sued Westboro for invasion of privacy, and Westboro argued for protection under the First Amendment

The Supreme Court issued its 8-1 ruling in favor of Westboro, finding that the protestors’ speech “cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”  Chief Justice Roberts noted that it is the speech that we hate the most that oftentimes requires the greatest protection. 

US Supreme Court: Are Video Games Obscene?

On November 2, 2010, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants.  The case tests the constitutionality of a California law that bans the sale or rental of violent video games to minors.  The Court's ruling in this area will likely have a drastic impact on the status of First Amendment law. 

Supporters of the law provide studies that show a correlation between playing these video games and a desensitization to real violence.  They argue that this law gives parents more control over the actions of their children.  In terms of their legal support, supporters argue that these violent video games are akin to obscene sexual material, and the law prohibiting sale of these games to minors should be subject to a rational basis test, as opposed to strict scrutiny.

Opponents of the California law provide their own studies that deny any correlation between playing these games and the player's propensity to commit actual violence.  The law's opponents further argue that if violent video games are subject to this law, what would prevent states from prohibiting sales of books or movies that contain violence.  Further, what level of violence would the game need to contain for it to be regulated under the law.  Opponents argue that the California law restricts protected speech, and the law should accordingly be held to a strict scrutiny standard.

The transcript of the oral argument is linked above.  If you have the time, it provides interesting insight into how the US Supreme Court (and state supreme courts) have to deal with a number of legal precedent standards, statutes, and policy issues in each decision they make. 

Frustrating Functionality of the First Amendment

Last weekend, the Drake Law School Constitutional Law Center hosted a symposium on same-sex marriage on campus.  Members of the ever-famous Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas came to the event to protest, displaying incendiary signs and shouting off-color remarks.  See the Des Moines Register piece on the event.  Luckily, the protest (and counter-protest of over 400 Drake students) was peaceful, and no arrests were made or lawsuits filed (yet). 

The Westboro Baptist Church has also protested at military funerals, essentially arguing that these military deaths are God's punishment to the United States for condoning homosexuality.  One father of a slain soldier in Pennsylvania brought a lawsuit against the church, arguing that the church's protest was an invasion of privacy and was an intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The church responded that its speech is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Interestingly, the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in the case. 

This case represents a classic moral dilemma:  although one can sympathize with the father who likely wanted to mourn his son's death in quiet dignity, it is dangerous to prohibit types of speech that we find repulsive. 

Although this author believes the Court will ultimately side with the church, this case represents one of the truly fascinating aspects of legal theory (and made sitting through law school class bearable).  Stay tuned!!