Employment cases abound this U.S. Supreme Court term

PHOTO/Courtesy John Immel
Wilcox.jpg When the United States Supreme Court opened its term this fall, it had a full plate of employment cases on its docket. The court has no less than 14 employment cases on its docket, and there is always the chance of the justices granting writs of certiorari to hear more employment cases during the term. Discrimination is the hot topic, but the court is also hearing its first Family and Medical Leave Act case, an old case comes back for a third time, and employee benefits are also at issue. Highlights of the cases follow.


Companies with arbitration clauses in their employee handbooks or policies will want to keep an eye on EEOC vs. Wafflehouse Inc. In that case, the Supreme Court will consider whether the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission retains jurisdiction to prosecute a discrimination complaint where the employee and the employer have entered into an arbitration agreement.

In the appeal of a claim alleging violation of the Americans With Disability Act, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the individual employee must arbitrate his claims although the EEOC could still seek injunctive relief.

In two other ADA cases, the court will determine whether a factory worker at Toyota who has suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis in her hands and arms after using pneumatic tools on the assembly line is covered by the Americans With Disability Act.

In the second case, the court will hear whether an employer airline engaged in a sufficient interactive process to consider an employee’s request for a transfer to accommodate his back condition when the employer had a seniority system governing the transfers.

Medical leave

In the first FMLA case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices will consider Department of Labor rules requiring employers to give notice to the employee that the leave will count as FMLA leave.

The claimant was working under a union contract that allowed up to seven months of medical leave. She was granted the leave, but the company did not notify her that the leave would be counted as FMLA leave.

The statute allows only 12 weeks of leave, but the regulations promulgated by the Department of Labor requires the employer to designate leave, paid or unpaid, as FMLA-qualifying, and to give notice of the designation to the employee. There is a split in authority over the validity of the regulations that should be resolved by the Supreme Court.

Labor law

In a traditional labor case, the court will determine whether an undocumented alien who was fired for allegedly engaging in union-organizing activity is entitled to back pay. The claimant was discovered to have lied about his identity and was not a U.S. citizen or authorized to work in this country. The NLRB allowed an award of back pay from the time of the claim up through the discovery by the employer of the claimant’s unlawful status.

Affirmative action

Federal contractors will be keeping a close eye on the Adarand case that returns to the U.S. Supreme Court for a third time. In this case, a minority-owned disadvantaged business enterprise received a bidding preference and was awarded a subcontract to construct highway guardrails. The case began in 1989.


Companies that provide health insurance, and their carriers, will be following Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. vs. Knutson. In this case, the health insurance carrier seeks recovery of benefits paid to an employee who was involved in an automobile accident and later recovered damages from a third party.

The question before the court is whether such claims for subrogation fall within the provisions of actions for equitable relief authorized by the Employment Retirement Income Security Act. A second ERISA case addresses whether state laws requiring second opinions for medical necessity decisions by health maintenance organizations is pre-empted by federal law.

Occupational safety

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s jurisdiction is at issue in a case involving citations against a drilling company for safety violations within state territorial waters. The 5th Circuit held that the United States Coast Guard had exclusive jurisdiction over the case.

Public employers

In a case which will be watched by the State of Alaska, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether a federal provision delaying the statute of limitations for filing state discrimination claims would apply to cases against the state that have been dismissed for violating the Eleventh Amendment precluding federal jurisdiction over such cases against states.

The common law of the workplace is continuing to change. By the conclusion of the Supreme Court term next June, we should have the answers to a number of these questions.

Copyright 2001 by Paul S. Wilcox. Used by permission. Paul S. Wilcox is chairman of the employment law practice at Hughes Thorsness Powell Huddleston & Bauman LLC in Anchorage. He can be reached by e-mail at ([email protected]).

12/02/2001 - 8:00pm