Category Archives: District Court

Discrimination for being “unmanly”

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (en banc) ruled that an iron worker who was subjected to gay slurs and simulated sex because he failed to conform to the employer’s male stereotypes was discriminated against under Title VII.

In EEOC v. Boh Bros. Constr. Co., No. 11-30770 (5th Cir. Sept. 27, 2013), the  court reviewed the jury’s findings and awarded damages.  The Fifth Circuit found that taking the case as a whole, a jury could have found that the employee was harassed because he did not fall under the “manly-man stereotype.”

This case arose when a worker, Kerry Woods, was subjected to sex harassment.  Woods was often sexual derogatory terms regarding Woods’ sexuality.  In addition, the superintendent also exposed himself when Woods was going to the bathroom, and made sexual innuendo comments to Woods.  When these actions were brought to the employer, the superintendent told the general superintendent that he didn’t care for Woods because he was “different” and “didn’t fit in.”

After trial the jury found that this verbal and physical harassment occurred daily.  The jury awarded Woods $200,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages.

via Harassed for being unmanly? En banc court sees Title VII violation; dissent sees clean-talk enforcer.

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Military Survivor Benefits for Same-Sex Spouse

In Copper-Harris v. United States, Case No. 2:12-00887 (Aug. 29, 2013), the Central District of California District Court recently ruled that the military could not deny survivor benefits to a same-sex spouse.  This case is interesting because it brings up a very interesting conflict of laws.

California recognizes same-sex marriages and recently the Supreme Court reversed DOMA.  You can see my prior post discussing the DOMA decision here.

Meanwhile, the Veteran’s Benefits statute, Title 38, defines a survivor spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who was the spouse of a veteran.” 38 U.S.C. 101(3).

The federal District Court in California, without referencing DOMA or what would be the appropriate standard of review, sided with the same-sex surviving spouse.  Using a rational basis review, the military would have to show that their action was rationally related to the purpose of the statute.  The questions can be summed up as follows:

  1. Is the survivor benefit exclusion of same-sex spouses rationally related to the goal of gender equality and expansion of the availability of veteran’s benefits?
  2. Is the survivor benefit exclusion of same-sex spouses rationally related to caring for and providing for veteran families?

The court said no.  Relying on expert testimony, the court noted that “veteran’s benefits are essential to ensuring that servicemembers perform to their ‘maximum potential,’ and other purposes justifying veterans benefits including readiness, recruiting, cohesion, and retention.”  Further, the court concluded that excluding same-sex spouses were not rationally related to the promotion of gender equality.

The court, based on the stated purpose of the Veterans Benefits statute, held that there was no rational basis for prohibiting same-sex survivors to receive the survivor benefits.

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Fair Labor Standard Act and Individual Liability

In Torres et al. v. Gristedes Operating Corp. et al., Case No. 11-4035 (July 9, 2013), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that a mayoral candidate, a supermarket owner, and an executive can be individually liable for settlement payments arising of a Fair Labor Standard Act class action.

In this case, the parties settled the class action.  A class action is a discrimination case brought by a few plaintiffs on behalf of many employees.  All of the members who agreed to be part of the class (the individuals who were discriminated against) receive their part of the settlement.  In order for a fair disbursement, the Judge must adopt the settlement.

Under the settlement, the defendants agreed to pay $3.5 million to the class.  However, the defendants defaulted on the payments.  The judge’s order allowed the class to enforce the settlement.  Defendants, who sought to change the settlement, stated that they were not bound by the settlement because they were not “employers.”

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.  The Court noted that the defendants exercised “operational control” that affected the class’ employment.  For example, based of their decisions, the employees’ wages were affected.  Because defendants were employers, defendants were bound by the settlement.  Based on this decision, defendants now have to pay the owed money.

via Labor Employment Law Blog: Second Circuit Imposes Individual Liability on New York Mayoral Candidate for Fair Labor Standards Act Settlement.

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Targeting Union Employees For Layoffs Violates The First Amendment

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals brings an interesting labor decision.  In State Employee Bargaining Coalitation v. Roland, ___F.3d___( 2d Cir. May 31, 2013), the court found that targeting Union employees for layoffs violates the First Amendment (freedom of association).

In this case, the employer employed around 50,000 people.  75% of these employees were members of the Union, and 25% were not.  In December 2002, the employer fired only Union employees.  No non-Union employees were fired.

It is important to note that an employer can manage the size of their work force.  However, the employer cannot target a protected group (here, employees who associated themselves with the Union).  The reason for this is because by targeting a protected group, the effect is to inhibit employees from their freedom to associate.

Under the Constitution, in order for the employer to not violate the Constitution it must show that they used the less restrictive means to accomplish their interest and must be narrowly tailored to achieve their goals.

The following are the pivotal facts of this case.  The employer’s interest was to manage their economical situation.  However, the laying off those Union employees had a minimal effect on their budget.  In fact, these Union-only lay offs were not included in the Balanced Budget Plan.  Further, the facts showed that because both Union and non-Union employees had the same health care and pension benefits there was no reason why only the Union employees were targeted.

via Adjunct Law Prof Blog: Targeting Union Employees For Layoffs Violates The First Amendment.

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Judge OKs $1.6B settlement in Toyota class action

You may remember this story that exploded all over the news.  Around the end of 2009 and start of 2010, the news reported that some Toyota cars had sudden-acceleration defects.

Toyota recently settled a federal class action.  U.S. District Court Judge James V. Seina approved of the federal class action settlement.  The settlement approved is for $1.6 billion, which includes attorney fees and costs calculated at $227 million.  The class members are said to receive anywhere between $125 to $10,000 each.

Toyota has denied liability for the alleged sudden-acceleration problem with the vehicles, as provided in the language of the settlement.  The ABA reports that a spokeswoman for Toyota stated,

This agreement allows us to resolve a legacy legal issue in a way that provides significant value to our customers and demonstrates that they can depend on Toyota to stand behind our vehicles,

It is important to note that Toyota is still facing trials in more than 80 state court lawsuits over the alleged sudden-acceleration defects.

via Judge OKs $1.6B pact in Toyota class action as trial begins in first wrongful death case – ABA Journal.

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Detroit Bankruptcy is Unconstitutional

As a follow up to the prior post reporting on the bankruptcy filing of Detroit, now a Michigan court has ruled that the bankruptcy filing is unconstitutional.  The decision can be accessed here.

The background of this legal battle raises a lot of legal questions.  The events are as follows.  First, Detroit announces it will be declaring bankruptcy.  Then, lawsuits are filed to block bankruptcy filings/proceedings.  An emergency hearing is scheduled on Thursday (last week) in front of a judge about blocking the bankruptcy proceedings.  Five (5) minutes before the Thursday hearing, Detroit files a petition for bankruptcy.  Afterwards, another hearing is set for Friday.

On Friday, the Ingham County Court ruled against the city.  The court relied on Michigan’s state constitution, which prohibits actions that diminish or impair pension benefits of public employees.  Because Detroit was aware that declaring bankruptcy would affect negatively the pension benefits of public employees, the court ruled that it acted unconstitutionally.

Michigan’s Attorney General Schuette stated that Detroit will be appealing the ruling.  The Attorney General also stated that they will be requesting a stay on the bankruptcy proceedings until the appeal is heard.

This background is so interesting because it raises a lot of legal questions.  Filing a Chapter 9 petition gives the bankruptcy court exclusive jurisdiction over the debtor’s (Detroit) assets.  The interesting predicament is that Detroit filed a petition for bankruptcy five (5) minutes before the Thursday hearing — before any order from the Ingham County Court.

Yet, the state court is ordering the Governor to “(1) direct the Emergency Manager to immediately withdraw the Chapter 9 petition filed on July 18, and (2) not authorize any further Chapter 9 filing which threatens to diminish or impair accrued pension benefits.”

Some of the questions include how to reconcile the state’s and the bankruptcy’s court jurisdictions.  For example, can the state court order state officials (like the Governor) to withdraw the petition? How can a bankruptcy proceeding reconcile itself with Michigan’s state constitution? Are the plaintiffs subject to sanctions for violating a stay in bankruptcy court?

The Huffington Post has an interesting tidbit:

Michigan is one of nine states that explicitly protects public employee pensions in its state constitution.  But the state of Michigan doesn’t guarantee the money to public employees if a city defaults or can’t pay those bills…

The law of bankruptcy is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.  And the limited case law of Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which applies to cities and municipalities, doesn’t say whether a judge can legally subvert Michigan’s constitution to lessen Detroit’s obligations to its pensioners.

You can read more about Michigan’s constitution protecting public employees’ pensions here.  Some other notable Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings nuclide Jefferson County, Alabama (2011) and Orange County, California (1994).

via Detroit bankruptcy unconstitutional, judge rules in pension case – ABA Journal.

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The Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court ruled on Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 NAMUDNO v. Holder, No. 08-322 (2013), answering the question of the whether a district (not the state) could seek the bailout provision under the Voting Rights Act.

The decision of the Supreme Court is important here because it did not rule on the issue of whether the Voting Rights Act was constitutional.

Instead, the Supreme Court ruled that the district could use the “bailout” provision under the Voting Rights Act, even if the state could not.  In holding this, the Supreme Court explained that the district fell under the definition of a “State of political subdivision,” and thereby could use the “bailout” provision.

Generally, the Voting Rights Act requires certain states to get pre-clearance before making any changes to elections.  One of these states includes Texas.  However, there is a provision (“bailout”) that states that the state can seek a declaratory judgment from a three-judge panel District Court in Washington, D.C.  42 USC 1973(b)(a)(1), 1973c(a).  The bailout provision requires:

  • The state has not used any forbidden voting test for the last 10 years;
  • The state has not been subject to a valid objection under the Voting Rights Act section 5;
  • The state has not been found liable for other rights act violations; and
  • The state has engaged in constructive efforts to eliminate intimidation and harassment of voters.

The Voting Rights Act only authorizes a bailout suit by a State or political subdivision.  42 USC 19873b(a)(1)(A).

Here, the government argued that under the statutory definition of the bailout provision, a district could not seek a bailout provision.  The Act provided that a “‘political subdivision’ shall mean any county or parish, except that where registration for voting is not conducted under the supervision of a county or parish, the term shall include any other subdivision of a State which conducts registration for voting.” Section 14(c)(2).  The government argued that because the district was not a county or parish and did not conduct its own voter registration, the district was not covered under the Act.

However, the Supreme Court disagreed.  Citing previous Supreme Court cases, the Supreme Court stated the definition of a “political subdivision” must be broad and not limited to the statutory definition.  The Supreme Court explained,

Our decisions have already established that the statutory definition in [section] 14(c)(2) does not apply to every use of the term “political subdivision” in the Act.  We have, for example, concluded that the definition does not apply to the pre clearance obligation of [section] 5.

There, we expressly rejected the suggestion that the city of Sheffield was beyond the ambit of [section] 5 because it did not itself register voters and hence was not a political subdivision as the term is defined in [section] 14(c)(2) of the Act… [O]nce a State has been designed for coverage, [section] 14(c)(2)’s definition of political subdivision has no operative significance in determining the reach of [section] 5.

(markings in original).  Taking a broad approach, the Supreme Court ruled that a district was a political subdivision.

In addition, the Supreme Court noted that the 1982 amendments provided that even if the state could not bailout, a political subdivision might be able to assuming it met the bailout requirements.

via We gave you a chance: Today’s Shelby County decision in Plain English : SCOTUSblog.

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Is a Fourth Branch in the horizon?

The Washington Post has a very interesting article, which highlights the increased deferment of cases to government agencies.  Instead of going through the court system, many cases are increasingly going through administrative agencies instead.

The question posed here is whether the right for court accessibility being challenged?  The Washington Post raises its concerns:

The growing dominance of the federal government over the states has obscured more fundamental changes within the federal government itself: It is just not bigger, it is dangerously off kilter.  Our carefully constructed system of checks and balances is being negated by the rise of a fourth branch, an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.

The Washington Post reports that the vast majority of laws governing the United States are not passed by Congress but are issued as regulations.  A study found that in 2007, Congress enacted 138 public laws, while federal agencies finalized 2,926 rules, including 61 major regulations.

The Washington Post also reports that a citizen is 10 times more likely to be tried by an agency instead of an actual court.  While federal judges conduct roughly 95,000 adjudicatory proceedings (including trials), federal agencies complete more than 939,000.

However, there are several items the Washington Post fails to mention.  The increasingly use of administrative agencies does not only fall upon the agency.

Take for example the individual’s decision to file a charge/claim.  Going through administrative agencies is more cost-effective.  Lawsuits in court have become more expensive.  Technology, electronic evidence, growth in documents and companies, among others, lead to a higher volume of issues and motions that increase the cost of litigation.  Given both alternatives, it makes sense that an individual might choose to go through an administrative agency.

For example, an individual going through the EEOC for a discrimination charge does not have to pay anything.  While an individual going through the court system may have to pay attorney fees and might be responsible for attorney fees.

 

 

Saying that, however, the issue of transparency and timing is highly concerning.  Administrative decisions are not public.  In addition, the length of an administrative decision might take several years.

via The rise of the fourth branch of government – The Washington Post.

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Evidence destruction leads to ruling U.S. was negligent

Under the civil rules of procedure, a sanction for the destruction of evidence would include an adverse finding.  In other words, if you are a party to a lawsuit and destroy evidence, the court may find that you were guilty of the allegations.

One of the reasons for this is that now, the court has no way of telling what the evidence said.  Would the evidence point to the party knowing about the problem?  Would the evidence show the party did nothing while it knew?  Would the evidence show nothing?

That is why it is so important to write a Spoliation Letter.  An Spoliation Letter is a letter that explains your duty to preserve evidence.  The letter explains that because there is a lawsuit (or there will be one), you now have to stop destroying evidence.

As an attorney, regardless of what side you are in, you have a duty to advise your client.  A big part of discovery is finding relevant evidence.  It would be against the idea of justice to go about destroying evidence.

This case highlights the importance of not destroying evidence.  In this case, in 2009, a 9-year old boy was at a mountain trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park when the retaining wall gave way.  Unfortunately, the boy died from this accident.

Court records show a complaint that the chief of maintenance shredded all of his documents, some of which dealt with visitor safety issues.  The documents were shredded sometime around December 2009 and January 2010.

As a sanction for destruction of evidence by the National Park Service in a wrongful death case, a federal judge in Sacramento, Calif., ruled Tuesday that the United States was negligent.

U.S. District Judge Nunley, held that the government was negligent “for all purposes in this case.”  The judge found that the government “purposely destroyed” the remains of the retaining wall, and that the park director and some staff knew the wall was unsafe, the newspaper says.

“What is less clear, although highly suspicious, is whether defendant [destroyed] evidence other than the wall,” U.S. Magistrate Gregory G. Hollows wrote in a previous decision.

Still undecided in the case and expected to be addressed at a June hearing is whether the government can assert a “discretionary function” defense under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The government argues that those in charge of the park had discretion to decide whether or not to repair the wall, and hence the government cannot be held liable for their decision-making.

via As sanction for destroying evidence, federal judge finds US negligent in wrongful death case – ABA Journal.

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EEOC wins over $1.5 million in sexual harassment case

The EEOC has issued a press release announcing a big victory for sexual harassment cases.  These cases are often dismissed.  For instance, according to EEOC 2011 statistics, the EEOC received 11,364 sexual harassment complaints.  Of these, 53% were found to have no reasonable cause.  This is an increase from 2010, where the percentage was of 50.1%.  Since 1997, the percentage of cases dismissed has been in an upwards trend.

In the EEOC case against New Breed Logistics (Civil Action No. 2:10-cv-02696-STA-tmp), the jury awarded $177,094 in back pay, $486,000 in compensatory damages, and $850,000 in punitive damages.

Following the 7-day trial, the jury found that the warehouse supervisor subjected 3 temporary workers to unwelcome sexual touching and lewd, obscene and vulgar  sexual remarks at the company’s Avaya Memphis area warehouse facility.  Further, the jury found that a supervisor fired the three temp workers because they complained about the harassment.

 

via Jury Awards More Than $1.5 Million in EEOC Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Suit against New Breed Logistics | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – JDSupra.

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