Monday, October 20, 2014

Key Employment Cases Pending in the Supreme Court

The Workplace Report has in the past referred to 2014 as the year for pregnancy protections. The EEOC issued its Guidance on pregnancy discrimination, expanding protections to eligible workers to that provided under the ADA. The State of Illinois followed suit with its own legislation protecting pregnant workers. Now the Supreme Court will take up the subject.  The Court will hear the case of Young v. UPS,  707 F.3d 437, cert granted 134 S.Ct. 2898 (U.S. 2014),  in which the plaintiff worked at UPS handling packages which required her to regularly lift a fair amount of weight. After she became pregnant, her doctor restricted her to lifting no more than 20 pounds. The company had a policy which allowed for light duty assignments for employees who sustained on duty injuries. Plaintiff asked for a light duty assignment and was denied it by the company. She sued claiming pregnancy and ADA discrimination. UPS won summary judgment which was upheld by the Fourth Circuit. The Supreme Court will hear the case on EEOC’s argument that its Guidance on pregnancy discrimination requires employers to treat pregnant workers at least as well as other employees. It will argue that since the company has a light duty policy for employees injured on duty, it should extend that same opportunity to its pregnant employees.

Many employers offer light duty to their employees who suffer work injuries. It makes sense. It gets those employees back to work and reduces worker’s compensation costs. Illinois already requires light duty for pregnant police officers. The Court’s decision has the potential to expand an employer’s light duty policy to all pregnant employees, marking a significant change to the obligations of employers.  By the way, Peggy Young, the plaintiff in the case, had her baby in 2007. The child is now more than seven years old!

The Supreme Court will also either hand employers another argument in defense of EEOC claims or limit their attack on the agency’s process. Another case that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear this term is one that deals with whether a party to a discrimination charge can attack the EEOC’s mediation process. The Court will hear the case of E.E.O.C. v. Mach Min., LLC, 738 F.3d 171 (7th Cir. 2013) cert. granted, 134 S. Ct. 2872 (U.S. 2014) out of the Seventh Circuit where the EEOC sued an Illinois mining company (Mach Mining) for alleged gender discrimination in its hiring  practices. Prior to filing suit, EEOC fulfilled its statutory obligation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by attempting to reach a resolution with Mach through informal conciliation. Conciliation is a voluntary process that occurs after the EEOC has “reasonable cause” to believe that discrimination has occurred.  This process allows for negotiations and counter-offers to be made while avoiding the expense and uncertainty of litigation.  EEOC determined that conciliation in this case was unsuccessful.  At trial, Mach claimed that EEOC’s attempt to conciliate was not in good faith, while EEOC claimed that the court should look no further than the face of the complaint to determine that the conciliation process was sufficient.  The Seventh Circuit, in a finding contrary to a majority of other circuits, that the conciliation process is not subject to judicial review and agreed with EEOC that Title VII gives EEOC complete discretion in handling its conciliation process and determining whether a resolution is acceptable.  Presumably the Supreme Court will now resolve the split in the circuits. If the Court overturns Mach and finds that parties are entitled to attack the conciliation process,  it may give employers another line of defense to the agency’s claims and may change the face of EEOC conciliation to a more process oriented process.