Beware of Judge Gorsuch’s Profoundly Anti-Democratic, Anti-Regulatory Vision

Not surprisingly, at Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, the Democratic Senators didn’t succeed in getting Judge Gorsuch to reveal much about his views.  Instead, Gorsuch insisted that “if I were to start telling you which are my favorite precedents or which are my least favorite precedents or view it in that fashion, I would be tipping my hand and suggesting to litigants I already made up my mind about their cases.  That’s not a fair judge.” But, Gorsuch has already done exactly that, writing an unusual concurring opinion that criticized Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a unanimous 1984 Supreme Court decision that has been reaffirmed many times.  Gorsuch’s critique of Chevron merits a close look because it reveals a vision that is profoundly anti-democratic and that makes it exceedingly difficult to rein in large corporations.

In Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, Judge Gorsuch wrote a 23 page concurrence arguing that Chevron should be overturned.  At his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch explained his actions by saying, “my job is when I see a problem to tell my boss.”  I can’t help noting that only a judge who has forgotten what it’s like to have a real boss would describe the Supreme Court justices as his “bosses,” since they have no ability to affect either his job tenure or his working conditions.  As Eric Posner has pointed out, Gorsuch’s views on Chevron place him far outside the mainstream, and to understand why, it’s worth reviewing both the holding and the rationale for the Chevron decision.  Chevron involved the validity of regulations adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (ironically under the leadership of Gorsuch’s mother) during the Reagan Administration. The regulations at issue were challenged by environmental groups, who argued that they were inconsistent with the purposes underlying the Clean Air Act.  The Court held that if a statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to a specific issue, the court should not simply impose its own construction on the statute, but instead should defer to the construction of the agency charged with administering that statute as long as the agency’s interpretation is “reasonable.”  This means that sometimes the Court will uphold the agency’s construction even though the Court might have reached a different result if the question had initially arisen in a judicial proceeding.

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Gorsuch’s Judicial Approach and Workplace Protection

When Judge Neil Gorsuch accepted his nomination to the Supreme Court, he professed modesty about his role on the Court, if he is confirmed.  He proclaimed that it is the role of judges to “apply not alter the work of the people’s representatives.”  But, unfortunately, Judge Gorsuch’s record casts serious doubt on whether he would truly respect the role of Congress when it comes to drafting legislation that protects the well-being of the American people.  A recent case involving a truck driver who was fired for leaving his load to take refuge after waiting two and a half hours without heat on a sub-freezing night illustrates how Judge Gorsuch’s approach to the law would endanger workers and the public.

For 150 years, Congress has drafted remedial legislation with the understanding that the courts would liberally construe the provisions of the laws to accomplish their ends.  Here’s what Representative Samuel Shellabarger, the author and manager of the 1871 Civil Rights Act said regarding that Act: “This act is remedial, and in aid of the preservation of human liberty and human rights.  All statutes and constitutional provisions authorizing such statutes are liberally and beneficially construed.  It would be most strange, and in civilized law, monstrous were this not the rule of interpretation.  As has been again and again decided by your own Supreme Court of the United States … the largest latitude consistent with the words employed is uniformly given in construing such statutes….”

Nor was that just the wishful thinking of a legislator.  Even in 1930, during the height of what we refer to as the Lochner era, a unanimous Supreme Court acknowledged that the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a law designed to protect injured workers, was “to be construed liberally to fulfill the purposes for which it was enacted.”  Thus, the Court held that even though the statute only imposed liability on railroads for injuries that resulted from the “negligence” of the railroad’s agents or employees, it was proper to impose liability where a foreman assaulted a worker.  The Court explained that since the employer would clearly be liable if the worker’s injuries “had been caused by mere inadvertence or carelessness on the part of the offending foreman it would be unreasonable and in conflict with the purpose of Congress to hold that the assault, a much graver breach of duty, was not negligence within the meaning of the Act.”

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The Supreme Court Vacancy and Labor: Neil Gorsuch

This post is part of an ongoing series on the labor decisions and positions of some of the likely potential picks to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court.

Neil Gorsuch currently serves as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. He was appointed by President George W. Bush on May 10, 2006 and confirmed just over two months later. As SCOTUSblog and numerous other outlets have pointed out, Judge Gorsuch may be “the most natural successor” to Justice Scalia, “both in terms of his judicial style and his substantive approach.”

Last August, Judge Gorsuch “made real waves in the normally sleepy world of administrative law” by advocating the end of the doctrine of Chevron deference. See Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, 834 F.3d 1142, 1158 (10th Cir. 2016) (Gorsuch, J., concurring). Writing a separate concurrence to his own opinion, Judge Gorsuch opined, “We managed to live with the administrative state before Chevron. We could do it again. Put simply, it seems to me that in a world without Chevron very little would change – except perhaps the most important things.” Id.

The following provides an overview of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions in cases involving the NLRB and employment discrimination.

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The Supreme Court Vacancy and Labor: William Pryor

President Donald Trump plans to announce his nominee to fill the late Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court this Thursday.  Among the rumored candidates is Judge William H. Pryor Jr. of the 11th Circuit, who met with the president two weeks ago.  Judge Pryor was appointed by President George W. Bush to his seat in Alabama in 2005 after the Senate voted to confirm him 53–45.  From 1995–97, Judge Pryor served as a deputy attorney general of Alabama.  He was elected as Alabama’s Attorney General in 1997, at 34 years old, and served in that position until his nomination to the 11th Circuit.  SCOTUS Blog has extensively covered Judge Pryor’s record on a variety of legal topics, but did not discuss the judge’s record on labor and employment.  We do so here.

Judge Pryor has not developed a particular reputation with respect to labor and employment law, but one impression that emerges from a look at the admittedly few labor and employment opinions he has written or joined is deference to the determinations of the NLRB.

Unlike his fellow shortlist member Neil Gorsuch, Judge Pryor has not publicly expressed concern over excessive deference to administrative agencies.  His NLRB opinions reflect a preference for deferring to agency interpretations and findings.  Out of nine cases he heard in which the NLRB was a party, Judge Pryor sided with the NLRB in eight of them.  In seven of these cases, Judge Pryor found that “substantial evidence” supported the NLRB’s determinations.  Judge Pryor was part of the unanimous or per curiam opinion in six of these cases.  In Lakeland Health Care Assocs. v. NLRB, Judge Pryor dissented from the majority opinion holding that substantial evidence did not support the NLRB’s decision to not count defendant employer’s licensed practical nurses as supervisors, thereby precluding their attempts to unionize.  Criticizing the majority, Judge Pryor wrote, “[i]n reweighing the facts and setting aside the Board’s order, the majority opinion ‘improper substitute[s] its own views of the facts for those of the Board,’ […] and fails to adhere to our deferential standard of review.”  696 F.3d 1332, 1350 (11th Cir. 2012).  He recognized that though some circuits gave a less deferential standard of review to NLRB determinations of who counts as a “supervisor” under § 2(11) of the NLRA, “our Court has refused to make ‘judicial adjustments to the statutory standard of review because we believe the wiser course is a robust application of the standard that has typified review of Board decisions.’”  Id. (citations omitted). Continue reading

Guest Post: Title VII’s Protection Against Class Action Waivers

Jonathan R. Harkavy, a lawyer, arbitrator and mediator, has taught labor and employment law at Wake Forest School of Law and corporate finance at Duke Law School and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.  He has written and lectured widely on employment law and alternative dispute resolution.

Citing the plight of employees ranging from female Goldman Sachs bankers to African-American Taco Bell restaurant workers, The New York Times lamented earlier this year that a double whammy of compelled arbitration and class action waivers is effectively disabling employees from enforcing their statutory rights.  Around the same time, Senators Leahy, Franken and others introduced legislation to limit forced individual arbitration of various employment and consumer disputes. (S.2506 – Restoring Statutory Rights and Interests of the States Act of 2016)  That legislation has promptly gone nowhere.  But, are the Times’ lament and the proposed legislation necessary to protect class litigation of Title VII claims?  Maybe not, if the Supreme Court heeds its own words.

Common wisdom has it that, in the wake of AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion and American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, the Court effectively foreclosed class arbitration of consumer and employment claims. To be sure, Italian Colors enforced a class arbitration waiver in an agreement used by American Express with merchants who honor its charge cards.  Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court concluded that the Federal Arbitration Act’s mandate to enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms required upholding the waiver in the absence of a “contrary congressional command.”  Moreover, Justice Scalia noted that the antitrust laws on which the merchants’ claim was based “do not guarantee an affordable procedural path to the vindication of every claim.”  But Title VII does for employees what the antitrust laws failed to do for merchants:  It provides an affordable procedural path for vindicating every employment discrimination claim and thus supplies the “contrary congressional command” missing in Italian Colors.

Look first at a rarely-cited obscurity in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – one that has largely been ignored by judges and lawyers alike.  Sections 706(f)(4) and (5) require that Title VII suits – alone among other civil actions – are to be expedited and advanced on the district courts’ dockets, even to the point of using Circuit Judges as trial judges and appointing special masters under Rule 53 to ensure prompt trials.  Also, section 706(f)(1) commands that in appropriate cases an employee need not pay a filing fee, need not pay costs and need not advance security to vindicate her rights.  Trial judges may also appoint counsel for employees and permit intervention by the EEOC or the Attorney General.  Congress has thus singled out Title VII claims for expedited and affordable treatment.

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Friedrichs Rehearing Petition Denied

Months after reaching a 4-4 tie in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the Supreme Court has denied the petitioners’ request for a rehearing. The Court waited until its final conference of the Term to vote on the petition, after postponing its decision eight times since April. No opinion was included with the Court’s denial.

While today’s announcement effectively brings the case to a close, the questions presented by Friedrichs — (1) whether Abood v. Detroit Board of Education should be overruled and public-sector “fair share” arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment, and (2) whether it violates the First Amendment to require that public employees affirmatively opt out of subsidizing nonchargeable speech by public-sector unions — may be litigated again and brought back before a (presumably full) Court in the future.

Looking Back at Justice Scalia’s Decision in Oncale: “because of… sex”

After the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, many rushed to evaluate his legacy (for good or for bad).  While Justice Scalia’s missing vote in Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association drew a great deal of immediate attention, few discussed the lasting impact of his decisions on employment law.  In this realm, one of the most frequent criticisms of Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence was that his decisions tended to restrict plaintiffs’ rights (such as Wal-Mart v. Dukes).  However, in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., Justice Scalia actually extended Title VII protections to cover same-sex sexual harassment claims.

When the Oncale decision was announced in 1998, it was widely praised for sending a message that ”male or female, gay or straight, nobody should have to face sexual harassment when they go to work in the morning.”  In reality, the decision only had a limited immediate impact, and became more notable for what it did not do.  Since Oncale, lower courts repeatedly interpreted the decision as a bar to Title VII claims on the basis of sexual orientation.  Now, years later, many, including the EEOC, believe Oncale actually opened the door to further expansions of Title VII protections.

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