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Supreme Court outlook: 4 key employment cases to watch

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law,Human Resources

The U.S. Supreme Court historically starts new terms on the first Monday in October. This year, for the first time in three decades, it began work in September. Reason: to hear arguments on the campaign finance law.

But for businesses, the important employment law cases are still around the corner. Here's a look at four key cases the high court will tackle in the coming months:

ADA: Do you have to rehire ex-addicts?

Continuing a pattern of tackling its favorite employment law of late, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the court will examine whether an employer has an obligation to rehire a worker who originally lost his job because he tested positive for drugs. (Raytheon Co. v. Hernandez, No. 02-749)

The case: Joel Hernandez tested positive for cocaine in a random drug test. Rather than be fired, he resigned. Two years later, he reapplied with letters from a drug counselor and his pastor saying he was clean. The company refused to rehire him, pointing to its policy of not reinstating employees who violate company rules. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Hernandez, saying the company's policy violated the ADA.

Bottom line: This case promises to address several critical issues, including the legitimacy of blanket "no rehire" policies and employers' obligation to give disabled workers a second chance.

Reverse age-bias: Can your policies favor older workers?

In a case that could significantly expand your exposure to age discrimination lawsuits, the Supreme Court will decide whether employees can use the Age Discrimination in Employ-ment Act (ADEA) to claim that their employer favored older workers at the company.

The case: A company's new collective-bargaining agreement prevented workers from receiving retiree medical benefits until they reached age 50. A group of 200 workers between the ages of 40 and 49 filed a class-action suit, claiming that the policy violated the ADEA because the workers lost the right to continued health benefits solely based on their age.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the younger workers, adapting a broader reading of the law's protections. (General Dynamics Land Systems Inc. v. Cline, No. 02-1080)

Bottom line: Two other federal circuits ruled the opposite way, saying companies are allowed to adopt policies that favor older workers over younger ones. The high court will decide who's right.

If the court upholds the 6th Circuit decision, it could essentially invalidate age-threshold rules for employee benefits.

SSN privacy: Must you prove actual damage to collect?

The court has agreed to hear an issue of growing concern to employers, how to deal with privacy concerns associated with Social Security numbers (SSNs). It will decide the type of damages available to a person who has his or her SSN revealed by an employer. (Doe v. Chao, No. 02-1377)

The case: A group of miners sued the U.S. Labor Department over its handling of black-lung disease claims. The agency used the miners' SSNs as case numbers and published them in reports, which became part of com-puterized research databases.

The Supreme Court must decide whether people who can show Privacy Act violations must prove they were actually harmed before they can collect monetary damages under the act. (The minimum damage amount is $1,000.)

Race-bias: What's the statute of limitations on 'Section 1981' cases?

Most race-discrimination lawsuits are filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But an increasing number of workers are taking the "backdoor" to race-discrimination suits, filing them under the so-called Section 1981 rule, which bans bias in the making of contracts. The contract, workers claim, is their agreement to work at a company.

Benefit to the worker: Employees at even the smallest companies can file Section 1981 suits. (To file a Title VII claim, a worker's employer must have at least 15 employees.) Plus, unlike Title VII, employees filing Section 1981 claims don't have to file claims with the EEOC before going to court. Also, there's no cap on damages.

Currently, Section 1981 doesn't have its own statute of limitations and courts traditionally use the comparable state statute of limitations.

The case: After being fired, a group of employees filed a Section 1981 race-discrimination lawsuit. While a lower court said a four-year statute of limitations applied, a federal appeals court said the time limit should be two years, based on a state statute.

Look for the Supreme Court to finally set a definitive statute of limitations on Section 1981 lawsuits. (Jones v. R.R. Donnelley & Sons, No. 02-1205)

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