Category Archives: civil rights

Can civil rights agencies help employees beat arbitration clauses?

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If confirmed, will Washington Nationals superfan Brett Kavanaugh just call balls and strikes when it comes to workplace justice issues?

The Lincoln Commission on Human Rights (LCHR) entered an award last month of $175,000 on behalf of a man who they found was discriminated against based on nationality and age.

While a six-figure judgment in favor of an employee in Lincoln is newsworthy in and of itself, the procedural back story of the case should be just as interesting to lawyers and observers of the legal system in light of recent Supreme Court decisions.

A federal judge overruled the employer’s motion to compel arbitration in the case. In a memorandum recommending the motion to compel arbitration be overruled a federal magistrate cited to the 2002 Supreme Court case, EEOC v. The Waffle House to hold that the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights was not a party to arbitration agreement and was free to pursue relief on behalf of the employee. The memorandum cited Iowa and Massachusetts cases applying Waffle House to state anti-discrimination agencies to find it applicable to the LCHR.

The ability of employees to use civil rights agencies as an end run around arbitration clauses, has taken new importance in the light of the Supreme Court’s recent Epic decision was which provided even more ability for employers to enforce arbitration agreements.

But there are some potential barriers for employees who wish to have an anti-discrimination agency pursue a discrimination claim on their behalf.

The most practical barrier is the lack of resources of civil rights agencies. In Nebraska, an employee has to wait several months before an investigator is assigned to their claim. This means that evidence gets spoiled and overworked investigators may not be as willing to pursue a case because of workload concerns. Without good evidence an agency is not going to pursue a claim on behalf of an employee in the public hearing process.

The inadequate funding of administrative agencies stems from a general hostility that many conservatives have towards the so-called “administrative state” or executive agencies that generally regulate the economy. (These same folks are deferential to executive agencies that comprise the national security state and law enforcement) This hostility is also evidenced in judicial skepticism of administrative agencies. This skepticism was on display from the Supreme Court in the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. In Masterpiece the court found that comments made by a state human rights commissioner were sufficient evidence of bias to overturn a decision finding a business owner who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding had committed illegal discrimination. I would expect more of that heightened scrutiny of decisions made by civil rights agencies in the future.

Finally, Waffle House may not remain controlling law. Waffle House was decided by a relatively narrow 6-3 decision with Justice Clarence Thomas writing the dissenting opinion. Legal journalist Ian Millhiser has deemed Thomas to be the most influential justice  because of his long record of dissenting and concurring opinions that are increasingly being adopted as law due to changes in the composition of the court.

Since Waffle House was decided in 2002, the Supreme Court has added Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito. Gorsuch is noted for his particular hostility to administrative agencies.  Supreme Court nominee and DC Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s views on administrative agencies allegedly aren’t as strident  as those of his fellow Georgetown Prep alum, Neil Gorsuch. But an employer looking to overturn the Waffle House decision may find a friendly audience with a five-justice majority comprising Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett & Moore, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

This entry was posted in Arbitration, civil rights, Supreme Court and tagged , , , , .

Three ways to make sense of Masterpiece Cakeshop

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The Supreme Court’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop was not as harmful to LGBT rights or civil rights laws in general as feared.  In fact, Masterpiece was cited by the Arizona Court of Appeals in upholding a Phoenix municipal ordinance prohibiting LGBT discrimination in public accommodation.

But court watchers were left scratching their collective heads by the mixed signals sent by the court. Given a week to digest the decision and read over the commentary, I think Masterpiece is understandable in the broader context of other decisions made by the Roberts court. I think three trends explain Masterpiece: 1) The Court’s favor of protected status over protected activity) 2 skepticism of the “administrative state” and 3) the use of federal supremacy by the court to rein in progressive-leaning states and cities.

Protected Status > Protected Activity

Sexual orientation and gender identity are considered a type of protected class. Sometimes theses these statuses are protected expressly, like they are in state and municipal laws, or they are covered by sex as held by many federal courts. Civil rights laws protect everyone based on various protected statuses such as race, nationality, religion, sex, disability and age. Everybody is covered by multiple protected classes. Protected class discrimination is fairly non-controversial because most people agree that someone should not be discriminated against based on immutable traits like race or sex. Sexual orientation and gender identity are just additional protected classes that would apply some people.

This isn’t to say that LGBT rights are universally accepted. The fact there are so many litigated cases, like Masterpiece, based on direct evidence of discrimination should be proof of that statement. But even in conservative-leaning states like Nebraska, business interests have pushed to expand anti-discrimination laws to LGBT individuals in an effort to have cities and states be seen as “open for business”. That’s part of the reason that Omaha, like Phoenix, has a municipal ordinance prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.   The Materpiece decision could be very persusasive to a Nebraska court hearing a challenge to Omaha’s laws prohibting discrimination agains the LGBT community.

Business looks less favorably upon protected activities than protected statuses. These are activities that individuals cannot be sanctioned for or retaliated against for engaging. From a business point of view the most problematic problematic activity is engaging in unionization or striking. Striking has re-emerged as a popular tactic for workers in the wake of teachers strikes and a possible strike by UPS drivers. The Supreme Court generally takes a business-friendly view on protected activity. In Epic, the court took a narrow view of what constituted protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. Earlier this term, in Somers v. DRT,  the court narrowed the definition of a whistleblower under Dodd-Frank. The split between how the court treats protected activities and protected statuses became apparent to me in 2013 when the court decided the landmark LGBT civil rights case Windsor in the same term they decided Nassar which raised the burden of proof for employees in Title VII retaliation cases. The same split between protected activity and protected activity is apparent in 2018 with Epic and Somers contrasted with Masterpiece.

Dislike of the Administrative State

The reason why Jack Phillips “won” Masterpiece was because of negative comments about religion made by a lone commissioner on the Colorado Commission on Human Rights. Phillips was being civilly charged by state administrative agency. The  Roberts court, Justices Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito in particular, are skeptical of the role of  administrative agencies on separation of powers grounds. That skepticism was evidenced by Justice Gorsuch’s comments about the National Labor Relations Board in Epic. ThIS terrm the court also heard what could be a close case about whether the Securities and Exchange Commission can use Administrative Law Judges to punish misconduct in the securities industry that could have broad — if not disruptive — implcations. If nothing else, Masterpiece is a bench slap to an administrative agency.

I also believe that Masterpiece could have a chilling effect on state and local human rights commissions.  I have served on the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights since 2014.  Even before Masterpiece was decided, commissioners were given a memo describing the concerns expressed by Justice Kennedy in oral arguments in Masterpiece about the comments made by the Colorado Civil Rights Commissioner. Civil rights commissioners often engage in spirted discussions about what constitutes unlawful discrimination in a particular case. It would be unfortunate if Masterpiece lead commissioners to self-censor over fears that those comments could be used by the parties they believe could be engaged in unlawful discrimination.

Federal supremacy over states and cities

Jack Phillips succeeded in making a first amendment argument that the Colorado Commission on Civil Rights violated his freedom of religion by making impermissible comments about his religion. Phillips resorted to federal law to strike down a decision made by the state agency of a progressive-leaning state. Much of the arbitration case law that supported the Epic decision was based on the Federal supremacy of  the Federal Arbitration Act over state laws that  prohibited arbitration. Many of these state laws were passed by “blue” states such as California. By overruling a decision made by the Colorado Commssion on Civil Rights, the Roberts court was able to assert some measure of federal supremacy over a progressive-leaning state.

The offices of Rehm, Bennett & Moore, which also sponsors the Trucker Lawyers website, are located in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska. Five attorneys represent plaintiffs in workers’ compensation, personal injury, employment and Social Security disability claims. The firm’s lawyers have combined experience of more than 95 years of practice representing injured workers and truck drivers in Nebraska, Iowa and other states with Nebraska and Iowa jurisdiction. The lawyers regularly represent hurt truck drivers and often sue Crete Carrier Corporation, K&B Trucking, Werner Enterprises, UPS, and FedEx. Lawyers in the firm hold licenses in Nebraska and Iowa and are active in groups such as the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers, Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG), American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA), and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). We have the knowledge, experience and toughness to win rightful compensation for people who have been injured or mistreated.

This entry was posted in civil rights, public accommodation, Supreme Court and tagged , , , , , .