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Supreme Court outlook: Key employment issues at stake

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Look for the U.S. Supreme Court to tackle several important business issues this fall, including what constitutes a disability and when a claim is officially filed. The court will open its 2001-02 term on Oct. 1.

What's a disability?

Perhaps the most vexing question facing the justices is how serious an impairment has to be before it qualifies for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams (No. 00-1089). This case could be particularly interesting because it involves repetitive motion injuries.

The justices will also consider whether an employer's seniority system trumps the ADA's accommodation requirements. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says companies must show that circumventing their seniority rules would create an undue hardship. (U.S. Airways v. Barnett, No. 00-1250)

Does arbitration keep EEOC at bay?

One of the first cases the court will hear involves what limits, if any, an arbitration agreement puts on the EEOC's right to sue on behalf of a worker. In EEOC v. Waffle House (No. 99-1823), a lower court said the agency could seek relief only for the public benefit, not anything specifically for an employee who claimed disability discrimination after agree-ing to arbitrate such claims.

FMLA:

Does failure to notify cost you?

The U.S. Labor Department has ruled that when an employer fails to notify a worker that his leave counts under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the clock doesn't start ticking on the 12-week entitlement. The result: You have to give that worker extra time off.

At least one court has upheld this Labor rule, but others have struck it down, saying it's a ridiculous extension of the FMLA beyond what Congress intended. The high court will make the final decision. (Ragsdale v. Wolverine Worldwide Inc. (No. 00-6029).

Industry-specific cases

Other cases will examine issues relevant only to particular industries, like whether a coal company has to pay lifetime health benefits for miners when it takes over a company that goes out of business (Massanari v. Sigmon Coal Co., No. 00-1307) and whether the authority to regulate ship safety rests with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Coast Guard. (Chao v. Mallard Bay Drilling, Inc., No. 00-927)

When is a lawsuit officially filed?

Two cases before the court involve deadlines for filing charges.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that if a discrimination charge doesn't include a sworn statement within the statute of limitations, it's invalid. The Supreme Court will decide whether this interpretation of the law is correct, or if a worker can file a charge first and submit the sworn verification later. (Edelman v. Lynchburg College, No. 00-1072)

Another case addresses the circumstances in which a worker filing a Title VII claim can include incidents that are older than the statute of limitations. (National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, No. 00-1614 )

Can employee be threat to self?

After the justices return, they're expected to decide whether to hear arguments in Chevron USA Inc. v. Echazabal (No. 00-1406).

That case centers on whether companies can refuse to hire an employee for a position that would pose a direct threat to the worker's own health and safety.

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