Health Reform May Outweigh Supreme Court’s Light Employment Law Docket

By Matthew Heller

Oct. 14, 2011

The legality of the Obama administration’s health reform law is likely to overshadow all other employment-related cases during the U.S. Supreme Court term that began Oct. 3.

The Supreme Court docket includes cases involving religious discrimination, the Family and Medical Leave Act and workers’ compensation. But none present such weighty—and as politically sensitive—issues as health reform, in particular whether the law’s requirement of buying health insurance is constitutional.

The court has so far received petitions to review four separate health reform cases, but it has yet to grant or deny review in any of those cases. The Justice Department is expected to ask the court to overturn an August decision in which the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta struck down the law’s individual mandate.

“From the standpoint of conflicts [between circuit courts of appeal] and importance, you can’t get much better than this topic,” says attorney Garry Mathiason, who is chairman of the board at Littler Mendelson in San Francisco. “I fully expect that they’ll accept it” for review.

A decision in a health reform case, Mathiason predicts, could very well come just before the Nov. 6, 2012, presidential election, putting the court squarely in the eye of the political storm. The court’s current term ends Sept. 30, 2012.

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

Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC

Argued Oct. 5, 2011

Key issue: What is the scope of the “ministerial exception,” which prohibits most employment-related lawsuits against religious organizations by employees performing religious functions?

Summary: Cheryl Perich was terminated from her teaching position at a Lutheran Church school in 2005. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the church on her behalf, alleging retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both the trial court and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati found the ministerial exception did not apply to the case. “[A]pplying the exception to nonmembers of the religion and those whose primary function is not religious in nature would be both illogical and contrary to the intention behind the exception,” the 6th Circuit said.

“For employers that are religious institutions, the case is highly relevant,” Mathiason says. He expects the court to “draw some borders” for the ministerial exception.

Pacific Operations Offshore v. Valladolid

Argued Oct. 11, 2011

Key issue: Whether an employee must be injured offshore to be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, or OCSLA.

Summary: Juan Valladolid worked primarily on a Pacific Operations oil platform 3 miles off the coast of California. After he was killed in an industrial accident on the grounds of Pacific’s onshore oil-processing facility, his wife received death benefits under California’s workers’ compensation law. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that she also had a valid claim under the OCSLA because the law “applies to any injury resulting from operations on the outer continental shelf, regardless of the location of the injury.”

“The Supreme Court has a long history of taking on these kinds of [jurisdictional] issues,” Mathiason says. “It’s one of those things that the Constitution specifically entrusts to the court.”

Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals

Oral arguments not yet scheduled.

Key issue: Are states immune under the 11th Amendment from being sued for violating the self-care leave provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act?

Summary: Daniel Coleman, a Maryland Court of Appeals employee, alleged he was wrongfully fired in part for requesting sick leave “based upon a documented medical condition.” The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the 11th Amendment does not abrogate FMLA’s provision relating to caring for a family member with a serious health condition because Congress enacted the law to remedy “the States’ record of unconstitutional participation in, and fostering of, gender-based discrimination in the administration of leave benefits.” But the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, said Coleman could not sue his former employer under FMLA because “preventing gender discrimination was not a significant motivation for Congress in including the self-care provision.”

“The interrelated provisions of the FMLA must not be wrenched apart,” Coleman’s lawyers said in a brief. “Just as a table loses structural integrity when one of its four legs is sawed off, so too does the FMLA fail if one of the four original leave provisions is severed.”

Filarsky v. Delia

Oral arguments not yet scheduled.

Key issue: Is a private attorney hired to work with government employees entitled to the same qualified immunity as government employees?

Summary: Nicholas Delia, a firefighter, sued officials of the city of Rialto, California, and a private attorney, Steve Filarsky, for violating his civil rights during an internal affairs investigation. The 9th Circuit ruled that Filarsky was not entitled to qualified immunity from the suit because, unlike the other individual defendants, he was not a city employee.

“[T]he Ninth Circuit opinion overtly dictates to municipalities how they can and cannot go about their legal business by creating a powerful economic deterrent to seeking the assistance and advice of outside counsel,” Filarsky’s attorneys have argued.

Knox v. Service Employees International Union

Oral arguments not yet scheduled

Key issue: Does a labor union violate the 1st and 14th Amendments when it forces nonunion public employees to subsidize the union’s fight against anti-union ballot measures?

Summary: A labor union deducted an assessment on public employee paychecks to fund political activities related to ballot initiatives. Nonunion employees filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the SEIU had unconstitutionally compelled political speech but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the union had complied with the procedural requirements established by the Supreme Court in Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson.

“When a state union compels its workers to make contributions for political purposes, it is ‘an infringement of their constitutional rights,’ ” the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest legal organization, said in an amicus brief.

Matthew Heller is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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