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Supreme Court to Hear Title VII, Class-Action Cases in 2012-13 Term

As Littler Mendelson's Garry Mathiason says, 'There are always some surprises from the Supreme Court.'

There don’t appear to be any issues approaching the magnitude of June’s landmark ruling on health care reform on the U.S. Supreme Court’s employment law docket for its 2012-13 term, which got under way in October. But the high court will consider cases that deal with weighty Title VII and class-action questions. And, says Garry Mathiason, who is chairman of the board at law firm Littler Mendelson in San Francisco, “There are always some surprises from the Supreme Court.”

The court has already accepted the following employment cases for review:

Vance v. Ball State University

Oral arguments scheduled Nov. 28

Key issue: How should the term “supervisor” be defined in Title VII cases in which an employee alleges workplace harassment by a person the employer holds out as the employee’s “supervisor?”

Summary: Maetta Vance, a dining services employee at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, alleges she was subjected to “an environment of physical intimidation and racial harassment” by Saundra Davis, a catering specialist who was “given authority to direct Vance’s work and other employees’ work.” The 7th Circuit affirmed a trial judge’s dismissal of the case, finding that Davis was not a supervisor for purposes of a Title VII vicarious liability claim because she did not have the authority to “hire, fire, promote, demote, discipline or transfer” Vance. “This is an issue that has been in labor law for decades,” says Mathiason, with some federal appeals courts taking the position that direction of work activities is enough to establish “supervisor liability” and others requiring the power to hire and fire. He expects the court will choose one of the two “supervisor liability” standards rather than a compromise.

Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk

Oral arguments scheduled Dec. 3

Key issue: Is a proposed Fair Labor Standards Act collective action rendered moot when the employer offered to satisfy all the lead plaintiff’s claims?

Summary: After a registered nurse sued Genesis for alleged meal-break violations under the FLSA, the company offered to pay her $7,500 in unpaid wages as well as her legal costs. When she did not respond to the offer, Genesis moved to dismiss the case as moot. Reversing a trial judge who granted dismissal, the 3rd Circuit said it would “frustrate the objectives of class actions” to allow a defendant’s offer of judgment to “pic[k] off” multiple plaintiffs. Mathiason believes the case may present the court with the opportunity to address a related “red hot” issue—whether the legal rules governing class actions may also apply to FLSA collective actions.

Comcast Corp. v. Caroline Behrend

Oral arguments scheduled Nov. 5

Key issue: Can a trial judge certify a class-action lawsuit without resolving whether the plaintiffs have introduced admissible evidence to show that classwide damages may be awarded?

Summary: In an antitrust case, plaintiffs sought certification of a class that includes more than 2 million current and former cable television subscribers. A trial judge granted certification and a divided 3rd Circuit panel affirmed. Comcast contends the plaintiffs presented no evidence that “damages can be established through class-wide proof.” The 3rd Circuit’s approach, it says, “would essentially return to the days when a bare complaint could suffice to satisfy the [plaintiff’s] burden.” While the case does not directly involve employment law, legal experts say the court could use it to give employers another weapon to defeat class certification. “Many class actions are won or lost at the class-certification level,” Mathiason notes.

U.S. Airways v. McCutchen

Oral arguments scheduled Nov. 27

Key issue: Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, can a judge, in the interest of fairness, refuse to order a participant in a health plan to reimburse the plan for benefits paid even if the plan’s terms give it the right to full reimbursement?

Summary: A participant in U.S. Airways’ benefit plan suffered injuries in an accident and incurred $66,866 in medical bills. The company paid for his medical care but when he recovered $110,000 in third-party settlements, he refused to reimburse the plan. The 3rd Circuit ruled for the participant, finding that a trial court may ignore a reimbursement provision, using principles of fairness to fashion a remedy of its own choosing.

Kloeckner v. Solis

Oral arguments held Oct. 2

Key issue: When a Merit Systems Protection Board procedural decision in a discrimination case is appealed, who hears the appeal—the Federal Circuit or a federal trial court?

Summary: A U.S. Labor Department employee appealed the board’s final order of dismissal on procedural grounds of her administrative complaint alleging a hostile work environment. The trial court dismissed her appeal, finding that the Federal Circuit had exclusive jurisdiction. The 8th Circuit affirmed, saying only board decisions on the merits of cases are appealable to trial courts.

Matthew Heller is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.