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Supreme Court Developments

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The Supreme Court is set to hear a handful of workplace-related cases during their 2012-2013 session which opened on October 1.  Because of their importance to HR, SHRM has identified three cases in which it will file amicus, or friend-of-the-court, briefs in cases involving health care reimbursement, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and employer liability under Title VII. 

This week, SHRM filed an amicus brief, along with the College and University Professional Association for HR (CUPA-HR) in the case of Vance v. Ball State.  In this case, the Supreme Court will decide under what circumstances an employer can be held vicariously liable when an employee, who is not a supervisor, harasses another employee in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  SHRM’s brief cautions the Court against employing a broad definition of “supervisor” in which any employee that oversees the daily work activities of a colleague could be considered a “supervisor” for purposes of liability.  The brief stresses the importance of maintaining an HR professional’s ability to identify supervisors with reasonable certainty in order to carefully screen candidates for supervisory positions and provide them additional training commensurate with their level of authority and ability to bind the organization. 

Earlier this fall, SHRM filed amicus briefs in two other Supreme Court cases.  In the first, U.S. Airways v. McCutchen, the Court will define the interplay between “equitable relief” under ERISA, and an employer health plan’s ability to seek reimbursement from plan participants who receive personal injury settlements.  In this case, U.S. Airways’ health plan included a provision requiring that participants who receive a personal injury settlement must reimburse the health plan for costs paid on the participant’s behalf.  A U.S. Airways employee, James McCutchen, was injured in an automobile accident and his treatment was paid by the company’s health plan.  After McCutchen brought suit against the other driver involved in the accident and received a monetary award, the health plan sought reimbursement under the terms of the plan.  Although the district court sided with U.S. Airways, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision and ruled that it would be inequitable for U.S. Airways to receive full reimbursement when McCutchen's monetary award did not fully cover his expenses. 

SHRM’s brief focuses on the role of ERISA and the importance of employers’ ability to rely on a plan’s contract language and terms.  Adopting the Third Circuit approach would leave employer plan language open to interpretation and could potentially yield different decisions in each case.

In Genesis HealthCare Corp. v Symczyk, the justices will determine whether a case brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) becomes moot when the lone plaintiff receives an offer from the employer which satisfies all of the plaintiff's claims.  The plaintiff in Genesis, a nurse, sought relief under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for unpaid meal breaks on behalf of herself and similarly situated employees but no other employees joined the suit. The employer offered a settlement to pay all alleged unpaid wages as well as attorney’s costs, fees, and expenses as determined by the court. The employer then sought to dismiss the case since there was no longer a party with a personal stake in the litigation. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case to assess the possibility that Symcyzk’s attorneys could identify additional parties to join the suit.

Litigation brought under the FLSA has grown by almost 300 percent in the past decade.  SHRM’s brief argues that, if left uncorrected, the decision will exacerbate the significant burden already placed on employers by this increasing wave of FLSA litigation.  In addition, SHRM emphasizes that Congress designed the FLSA to include a strong government enforcement component allowing the government to enforce the FLSA’s provisions on behalf of employees, reducing the need for the court to keep the case open for other potential claimants.

Each of these amicus briefs present an opportunity to ensure that HR’s voice is heard on these critical workplace issues.  The briefs also provide a platform to educate the Court on key elements of HR’s role in implementing health care plans and ensuring workplace compliance with the FLSA and Title VII.

SHRM’s brief in Vance v. Ball State will be posted on early next week.  To read SHRM’s brief in Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk, click HERE and to read the brief in U.S.Airways v. McCutchen, click HERE

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