The Supreme Court Says “Game Over” to Crafty Gamers’ Attempt to Circumvent Class Certification Appeals

The Xbox 360 is designed for gaming. Appellate litigation, gamers learned, is not. On behalf of a putative class of purchasers of the Xbox 360, a group of gamers brought suit alleging a defect with the consoles. After the district court struck the class allegations, plaintiffs sought permission to appeal under Rule 23(f), which the Ninth Circuit denied. Rather than proceeding in litigation to final judgment, plaintiffs instead voluntarily dismissed their claims, with prejudice, while reserving a right to appeal the order striking class allegations. Plaintiffs then appealed the order under Section 1291. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that it had appellate jurisdiction and thus the case was still “sufficiently adverse” to be heard under §1291. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the question of whether courts of appeals “have jurisdiction under §1291 and Article III . . . to review an order denying class certification (or, as here, an order striking class allegations) after the named plaintiffs have voluntarily dismissed their claims with prejudice.” Writing for the majority in Baker, Justice Ginsburg reasoned that permitting plaintiffs’ back door to the appellate courts to remain open would defeat the even-handedness codified as part of the final judgment rule under §1291 and in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For similar reasons, Justice Ginsburg wrote, the Court previously rejected the judicially-created “death-knell doctrine”—under which an appellate court could review an order refusing to certify a class when the rejection of class certification “sounded the ‘death knell’ of the action”—because it served only to favor the plaintiffs. Describing plaintiffs’ circumvention tactic as a “voluntary dismissal device,” the Court held that permitting only plaintiffs to immediately appeal adverse class certification orders would be manifestly unfair and upset the balance between the parties. Indeed, as the Court noted, “the ‘class issue’ may be just as important to defendants . . . for an order granting certification . . . may force a defendant to settle rather than . . . run the risk of potentially ruinous liability.” Yet plaintiffs’ tactic would confer no right to immediate appeal on defendants. Moreover, the Court held, plaintiffs’ voluntary dismissal tactic would “undercut[] Rule 23(f)’s discretionary regime,” which states that interlocutory appeals of grants or denials of class certification may be permitted by a federal court of appeals, but do not create an obligation on the part of Article III courts. The primary drafters of this rule believed that creating a right to interlocutory appeal could be abused, and instead granted such a decision “to the sole discretion of the court of appeals.” Plaintiffs’ maneuver to manufacture appellate jurisdiction would subvert this discretion by impermissibly “transform[ing] a tentative interlocutory order . . . into a final judgment claims with prejudice—subject, no less, to the right to ‘revive’ those claims if the denial of class certifi­cation is reversed on appeal.” To embrace plaintiffs’ reasoning would render “Congress’ final decision rule . . . a pretty puny one.” The majority concluded that “Congress chose the rulemaking process to settle the matter, and the rulemakers did so by adopting Rule 23(f )’s evenhanded prescription. It is not the prerogative of litigants or federal courts to disturb that settlement.” Taking a more narrow view, in his concurrence, Justice Thomas wrote that though he disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of §1291—because “[w]hether a dismissal with prejudice is ‘final’ depends on the meaning of §1291, not Rule 23(f )”—plaintiffs nevertheless could not appeal because the court lacked Article III jurisdiction. By voluntarily dismissing their claims, “the plaintiffs asked the District Court to dismiss their claims, they consented to the judgment against them and disavowed any right to relief from Microsoft,” including their right to appeal the order on class certification. Baker serves as an important reminder to litigants to consider both the purpose and intent of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which take an even-handed approach. The downstream effects of an alternative ruling would have been significant, as defendants could face undue and increased pressure to settle potentially meritless cases rather than risk incurring the large expense of litigating a judicially-created, one-sided appellate process.  There is no appellate “cheat code” available only to plaintiffs, and the Supreme Court has helped ensure that one of the most seminal moments in class litigation remains a fair game.

This post was contributed by Stephen R. Chuk of Proskauer Rose LLP.

U.S. Supreme Court Rules That An SEC Enforcement Claim For Disgorgement Is Subject To A Five-Year Statute Of Limitations

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that any claim for disgorgement in an SEC enforcement action must be commenced within five years of the date the claim accrued. The decision in Kokesh v. SEC, No. 16-529, resolved a split among Courts of Appeals whether the statute of limitations that applies to SEC enforcement actions seeking a penalty or forfeiture (28 U.S.C. § 2462) applies when disgorgement is sought. The Court had earlier applied that statute of limitations to claims by the SEC seeking a civil monetary penalty, and held that the limitations period begins to run when the violation occurs, not when it is discovered by the government. Gabelli v. SEC, 568 U.S. 442 (2013).

Supreme Court SCOTUS Class-Action WaiverThe five-year statute of limitations applies to “an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.” The Court held that the imposition of disgorgement in an SEC enforcement action is a “penalty,” thus subject to the five-year limitations period. In reaching that conclusion, the Court noted that disgorgement is imposed as a consequence of violation of a public law, not because some individual was aggrieved. Another element of the Court’s reasoning was that when disgorgement is ordered in an enforcement action the remedy is not compensatory. Instead, disgorged profits are paid to the court, and it is within the discretion of the court to determine how and to whom the money will be distributed.

Perhaps most important among the Court’s rationales, the primary purpose of disgorgement ordered in an enforcement action is deterrence, and sanctions imposed to deter infractions of public laws are “inherently punitive.” The Court noted that the amount paid is often greater than the defendant’s gain so that the defendant is not, in all cases, merely restored to the status it would have occupied had it not broken the law.

The oral argument in the case included considerable colloquy on the source of a court’s power to order disgorgement in an SEC enforcement action. In its decision the Court stated, “Nothing in this opinion should be interpreted as an opinion on whether courts possess authority to order disgorgement in SEC enforcement proceedings . . . .” (Slip Op., p. 5, n. 3)

The obvious effect of the decision will be to require the SEC to be expeditious in filing cases seeking not only civil monetary penalties but also, now, disgorgement. The Court did not address whether the remedy of an injunction, which often has collateral consequences for the defendant, or of declaratory relief is subject to this statute of limitations. The Court also did not discuss the effect a tolling agreement would have on the running of the statute.

This post was written by Allan Horwich of Schiff Hardin LLP.

Unanimous Supreme Court Decision in Favor of “Church Plan” Defendants

Today, the Supreme Court handed a long-awaited victory to religiously affiliated organizations operating pension plans under ERISA’s “church plan” exemption. In a surprising 8-0 ruling, the Court agreed with the Defendants that the exemption applies to pension plans maintained by church affiliated organizations such as healthcare facilities, even if the plans were not established by a church. Justice Kagan authored the opinion, with a concurrence by Justice Sotomayor.  Justice Gorsuch, who was appointed after oral argument, did not participate in the decision.  The opinion reverses decisions in favor of Plaintiffs from three Appellate Circuits – the Third, Seventh, and Ninth.

For those of you not familiar with the issue, ERISA originally defined a “church plan” as “a plan established and maintained . . . for its employees . . . by a church.”   Then, in 1980, Congress amended the exemption by adding the provision at the heart of the three consolidated cases.  The new section provides: “[a] plan established and maintained . . . by a church . . . includes a plan maintained by [a principal-purpose] organization.”  The parties agreed that under those provisions, a “church plan” need not be maintained by a church, but they differed as to whether a plan must still have been established by a church to qualify for the church-plan exemption.

The Defendants, Advocate Health Care Network, St. Peter’s Healthcare System, and Dignity Health, asserted that their pension plans are “church plans” exempt from ERISA’s strict reporting, disclosure, and funding obligations.  Although each of the plans at issue was established by the hospitals and not a church, each one of the hospitals had received confirmation from the IRS over the years that their plans were, in fact, exempt from ERISA, under the church plan exemption because of the entities’ religious affiliation.

The Plaintiffs, participants in the pension plans, argued that the church plan exemption was not intended to exempt pension plans of large healthcare systems where the plans were not established by a church.

Justice Kagan’s analysis began by acknowledging that the term “church plan” initially meant only “a plan established and maintained . . . by a church.” But the 1980 amendment, she found, expanded the original definition to “include” another type of plan—“a plan maintained by [a principal-purpose] organization.’”  She concluded that the use of the word “include” was not literal, “but tells readers that a different type of plan should receive the same treatment (i.e., an exemption) as the type described in the old definition.”

Thus, according to Justice Kagan, because Congress included within the category of plans “established and maintained by a church” plans “maintained by” principal-purpose organizations, those plans—and all those plans—are exempt from ERISA’s requirements. Although the DOL, PBGC, and IRS had all filed a brief supporting the Defendants’ position, Justice Kagan mentioned only briefly the agencies long-standing interpretation of the exemption, and did not engage in any “Chevron-Deference” analysis.  Some observers may find this surprising, because comments during oral argument suggested that some of the Justices harbored concerns regarding the hundreds of similar plans that had relied on administrative interpretations for thirty years.

In analyzing the legislative history, Justice Kagan aptly observed, that “[t]he legislative materials in these cases consist almost wholly of excerpts from committee hearings and scattered floor statements by individual lawmakers—the sort of stuff we have called `among the least illuminating forms of legislative history.’” Nonetheless, after reviewing the history, and as she forecasted by her questioning at oral argument (see our March 29, 2017 Blog, Supreme Court Hears “Church Plan” Erisa Class Action Cases), Justice Kagan rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that the legislative history demonstrated an intent to keep the “establishment” requirement.  To do so “would have prevented some plans run by pension boards—the very entities the employees say Congress most wanted to benefit—from qualifying as `church plans’…. No argument the employees have offered here supports that goal-defying (much less that text-defying) statutory construction.”

In sum, Justice Kagan held that “[u]nder the best reading of the statute, a plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization therefore qualifies as a `church plan,’ regardless of who established it.”

Justice Sotomayor filed a concurrence joining the Court’s opinion because she was “persuaded that it correctly interprets the relevant statutory text.” Although she agreed with the Court’s reading of the exemption, she was “troubled by the outcome of these cases.”  Her concern was based on the notion that “Church-affiliated organizations operate for-profit subsidiaries, employee thousands of people, earn billions of dollars in revenue, and compete with companies that have to comply with ERISA.”  This concern appears to be based on the view that some church-affiliated organizations effectively operate as secular, for-profit businesses.

Takeaways:

  • Although this decision is positive news for church plans, it may not be the end of the church plan litigation.  Numerous, large settlements have occurred before and since the Supreme Court took up the consolidated cases, and we expect some will still settle, albeit likely for lower numbers.
  • In addition, Plaintiffs could still push forward with the cases on the grounds that the entities maintaining the church plans are not “principal-purpose organizations” controlled by “a church.”

René E. Thorne and Charles F. Seemann III of Jackson Lewis P.C..

U.S. Supreme Court Holds That Patent Act Does Not Provide Laches Remedy for Limiting Damages

supreme court patent act lachesThe U.S. Supreme Court took on the analysis of laches in a March 2017 decision in SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag, et al., v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC, et. al. The Supreme Court held that the equitable doctrine of laches cannot be invoked as a defense against a claim for damages brought within the six-year limitations period of 35 U.S.C. § 286 – and further held that such a remedy is not codified in 35 U.S.C. § 282.

Effectively, this holding eliminates the potential for a defendant to argue under the doctrine of laches that a plaintiff in a patent infringement action unreasonably delayed bringing the patent infringement action and allows the plaintiff to recover damages over the previous six-year period, regardless of when the plaintiff became aware of the infringement or the length of time the infringement has occurred.

Before SCA, the analysis of the remedy of laches in limiting patent damages was controlled by the holding in A.C. Auckerman Co. v. R.L. Chaides Constr. Co., 990 F.2d 1020, 1030 (Fed.Cir. 1992). In Auckerman, the Federal Circuit held that § 282 recognized a laches defense in harmony with § 286 as the laches defense “invokes the discretionary power of the court to limit the defendant’s liability for infringement by reason of the equities between the particular parties.” In this recent case, First Quality argued that Congress had implicitly ratified the proposition that § 282 includes a laches defense by leaving the language of § 282 untouched after this interpretation of § 282 had been applied by lower courts. The Supreme Court rejected the premise that the remedy of laches was codified by § 282, holding that the period of limitation codified in § 286 by Congress “reflects a congressional decision that the timeliness of covered claims is better judged on the basis of a generally hard and fast rule rather than the sort of case-specific judicial determination that occurs when a laches defense is asserted.” The Supreme Court found that Congress’ clear establishment of the period of reasonableness for bringing a patent infringement claim is reflected in the language of § 286, which reads, in part:

Except as otherwise provided by law, no recovery shall be had for any infringement committed more than six years prior to the filing of the complaint or counterclaim for infringement in the action.

The Supreme Court’s holding was not unexpected and the reasoning followed the court’s holding in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014), which addressed similar language in the Copyright Act and confirmed that laches was not available as a defense during the codified limitation period of three years. In SCA, the Supreme Court found no reason to disregard the general rule that laches does not apply to damages suffered within the period of a statute of limitations in the specific context of a patent infringement suit.

The ruling in SCA will now allow a patent owner to wait to bring an infringement suit without concern for it being found that it waited an unreasonably long. For example, a patent owner may wait until the accumulated damages by a putative infringer have grown to an amount that makes filing a suit more attractive financially. It should be noted that the § 286 period of limitation is on the recovery of damages and does not bar bringing suit at any time during the period of enforceability of the patent. The patent owner, absent some other limitation on damages available to the putative infringer, may wait for any amount of time during the period of enforceability of the patent and bring suit.

Notably, this decision does not address the equitable principle of estoppel, which was also at issue in the case, but not part of the appeal. The ruling also does not change the effect of the various limitations on damages codified in 35 U.S.C. § 287.

How Does Supreme Court’s Remand of Transgender Discrimination Case Impact Wage-and-Hour Class Actions?

supreme court transgender discriminationOn March 6, 2017, the Supreme Court, in a one-sentence summary disposition, remanded the case of Gloucester County Sch. Bd. v. G.G. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit “for further consideration in light of the guidance document issued by the Department of Education and Department of Justice on February 22, 2017.”  For those unfamiliar with Gloucester County, the case involves a public school’s obligations to a transgender student under Title IX and, in particular, whether Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination requires a school to treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity when providing sex-separated facilities, such as toilets, locker rooms, and showers.

So what does this have to do with wage-and-hour class actions?  As it turns out, in Gloucester County, the Supreme Court was poised to consider the scope, and perhaps the continuing viability, of the Auer doctrine, which frequently comes into play in wage-and-hour litigation.  Under the Auer doctrine, courts generally will enforce an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations unless that interpretation is “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.”  In wage-and-hour class actions, this often results in cases being decided based on guidance issued by the Department of Labor through opinion letters, its Field Operations Handbook, and other sources.

This deference to the Department of Labor can be frustrating for employers and attorneys practicing wage-and-hour law because the guidance issued by the Department of Labor often changes with each new Presidential administration.  For example, an entire industry can decide to classify a group of employees as exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements based on an opinion letter from the Department of Labor only to learn years later that the Department has withdrawn the opinion letter after the start of a new administration.  If courts are obligated under Auer to defer to these shifting interpretations issued by the Department of Labor, it can create a great deal of uncertainty for employers seeking to comply with the FLSA and for parties litigating wage-and-hour class actions.

In the long term, eliminating or narrowing the Auer doctrine could provide more consistency for employers and litigants.  With the remand of Gloucester County, that is unlikely to happen in the near future.  In the short term, however, the continuing viability of the Auer doctrine may benefit employers who are hopeful that the Department of Labor, under the Trump administration, will take a more employer-friendly view of certain regulations.  For now, the Department of Labor remains free to shape FLSA through opinion letters and other guidance documents and without having to resort to the time-consuming process of issuing revised regulations.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2017

Judge Gorsuch’s Opinion in Whistleblower Case Reveals the Dishonesty of his Alleged Strict Textualism

Neil Gorsuch Supreme CourtIf Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, he will play a critical role in construing laws that protect worker health and safety, including laws protecting whistleblowers who suffer retaliation for opposing illegal or unsafe conduct that jeopardizes public health and safety. According to the Bureau of Labor Standards, 4836 workers were killed on the job in 2015—on average, that’s more than 93 a week, or more than 13 deaths every day. As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) is already severely understaffed and will soon be further weakened by a political appointee charged with gutting it, the last thing workers need is an activist judge who has expressed disdain for worker-protection laws. But that is exactly what we can expect from Judge Gorsuch.

In a recent dissent in TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Administrative Review Board, 833 F.3d 1206 (10th Cir. 2016), Judge Gorsuch demonstrated that he will construe worker-protection laws as narrowly as possible and that he deems worker “health and safety” as “ephemeral and generic” statutory goals.  His opinion also reveals that his alleged values-neutral approach to statutory construction is intellectually dishonest.  The majority decision affirming the whistleblower’s win at the Department of Labor was based on the plain meaning of the statute, well-established precedent construing the statutory term at issue, and the purpose of the statute.  Judge Gorsuch’s dissent, however, was arguably activist in that it rewrites the statute.  In other words, Judge Gorsuch does not check his policy preferences or values at the courthouse door and render value-neutral decisions based on the dictionary definitions of statutory terms.  Instead, as this opinion demonstrates, his alleged strict textualism appears to be a cloak for his policy preferences, including his apparent disdain for worker protection laws.

Background of TransAm Trucking Whistleblower-Retaliation Case

Alphonse Maddin worked as a truck driver for TransAm Trucking, Inc. (“TransAm”). He was driving a tractor-trailer down an Illinois freeway on a subzero night in 2009, when he noticed that his truck was nearly out of gas. He pulled over because he could not find a fuel station, and ten minutes later, the trailer’s brakes locked up due to the frigid temperatures. Mr. Maddin was unable to resume driving the tractor-trailer and reported the truck’s unsafe condition to a TransAm dispatcher. The dispatcher told Mr. Maddin that a repairperson would be sent to fix the brakes.

Mr. Maddin dozed off briefly and awoke to find that his torso was numb and he could not feel his feet. He told the dispatcher about his physical condition and asked when the repairperson would arrive. “[H]ang in there,” the dispatcher responded.

Half an hour later, Mr. Maddin called his supervisor, Larry Cluck, and told Mr. Cluck that his feet were going numb and that he was having difficulty breathing. Mr. Cluck told Mr. Maddin not to leave the trailer and gave him two options: drag the trailer with inoperable brakes, or stay put until the repairperson arrives. Mr. Maddin knew that dragging the trailer is illegal and concluded that he might not live much longer if he were to wait for a repairperson. So, Mr. Maddin unhitched the trailer and drove off.

Fifteen minutes after Mr. Maddin left—i.e., more than three hours after he first notified TransAm that he was stranded in subzero temperatures—the repairperson arrived. Mr. Maddin drove the truck back to meet the repairperson, who then fixed the trailer’s brakes. Less than a week later, TransAm terminated Mr. Maddin’s employment for abandoning the trailer.

Mr. Maddin filed a complaint with OSHA, alleging that TransAm violated the whistleblower provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (“STAA”) by firing him. OSHA dismissed the claim, but a Department of Labor (“DOL”) administrative-law judge (“ALJ”) later ruled, after a hearing, that TransAm violated the STAA. TransAm appealed, and the DOL Administrative Review Board (“ARB”) affirmed.

Mr. Maddin’s STAA Whistleblower-Retaliation Claim

The relevant STAA provision prohibits an employer from firing an employee who “refuses to operate a vehicle because . . . the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition.” TransAm Trucking, 833 F.3d at 1211 (alteration in original) (quoting 49 U.S.C. § 31105(a)(1)(B)(ii)). An employee’s apprehension is “reasonable” if a reasonable person in the same circumstances “would conclude that the hazardous safety or security condition establishes a real danger of accident, injury, or serious impairment to health.” Id. (quoting § 31105(a)(2)). To prevail under this provision, an employee must demonstrate that he or she “sought from the employer, and [was] unable to obtain, correction of the hazardous safety or security condition.” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting § 31105(a)(2)).

The ALJ found, and the ARB affirmed, that Mr. Maddin had engaged in protected conduct when he unhitched the trailer and “refused to operate the truck under the conditions set by Mr. [C]luck.” Id. (alteration in original). TransAm argued, on appeal, that this finding was in error because Mr. Maddin had not “refused to operate” the truck but rather in fact “operated” the truck when he drove off without the trailer.

The Tenth Circuit engaged in a Chevron analysis to determine whether to defer to the ARB’s interpretation of the STAA. Because the statute does not define “operate,” the Tenth Circuit found that Congress had not “directly spoken to the precise question at issue.” Id. (quoting Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842 (1984)). Therefore, the Tenth Circuit turned to the question whether the ARB’s interpretation was “based on a permissible construction of the statute.” Id. (quoting Chevron, 467 U.S. at 843).

TransAm argued, in effect, that “operate” was synonymous with “drive.” The ARB, on the other hand, interpreted “operate” to encompass driving as well as “other uses of a vehicle when it is within the control of the employee.” Id.

The Tenth Circuit looked to the purpose of the STAA whistleblower provisions—to “encourage employee reporting of noncompliance with safety regulations governing commercial motor vehicles.” Id. at 1212 (quoting Brock v. Roadway Express, Inc., 481 U.S. 252, 258 (1987)). The court found that the ARB’s interpretation of “operate,” and not TransAm’s, furthered that purpose because it “prohibit[ed] an employer from discharging an insubordinate employee whose insubordination was motivated by the employee’s reasonable apprehension of serious injury to himself or members of the public.” Id.

Therefore, the Tenth Circuit deferred to the ARB’s interpretation of “operate” and affirmed the ARB’s finding that Mr. Maddin’s unhitching the trailer and driving away in the truck, against his supervisor’s instructions, constituted a “refusal to operate” and so was protected conduct under the STAA. Id. at 1213. The court explained that “although Maddin actually drove the truck after unhitching it, he refused to operate his tractor-trailer in the manner instructed by his employer.” Id.

The Tenth Circuit found, moreover, that Mr. Maddin’s protected activity was a contributing factor in his firing. Id. Having found that the ARB’s findings—that Mr. Maddin engaged in STAA-protected conduct and was fired for doing so—were supported by substantial evidence, the Tenth Circuit denied TransAm’s petition for review.

Judge Gorsuch’s Dissent

Judge Gorsuch took issue with the ARB’s, and the majority’s, interpretation of “refusal to operate”:

The trucker in this case wasn’t fired for refusing to operate his vehicle. Indeed, his employer gave him the very option the statute says it must: once he voiced safety concerns, TransAm expressly—and by everyone’s admission—permitted him to sit and remain where he was and wait for help. The trucker was fired only after he declined the statutorily protected option (refuse to operate) and chose instead to operate his vehicle in a manner he thought wise but his employer did not. And there’s simply no law anyone has pointed us to giving employees the right to operate their vehicles in ways their employers forbid.

Id. at 1215–16 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting). Judge Gorsuch said the majority should not have even engaged in a Chevron analysis because the STAA is “perfectly plain.”

Relying on the Oxford English Dictionary, Judge Gorsuch found that “refuse” means “[t]o decline positively, to express or show a determination not to do something”; and “operate” means “[t]o cause or actuate the working of; to work (a machine, etc.).” Id. at 1216 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (alterations in original) (quoting The Oxford English Dictionary 495, 848 (2d ed. 1989)). Putting those two definitions together, Judge Gorsuch concluded that, under the STAA, “employees who voice safety concerns about their vehicles may decline to cause those vehicles to work without fear of reprisal” but may not “cause those vehicles to work in ways they happen to wish but an employer forbids.” Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

To illustrate the alleged absurdity of the majority’s contrary interpretation, Judge Gorsuch used an analogy: “Imagine a boss telling an employee he may either ‘operate’ an office computer as directed or ‘refuse to operate’ that computer. What serious employee would take that as license to use an office computer not for work but to compose the great American novel? Good luck.” Id. at 1217 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

Judge Gorsuch then criticized the majority for its reliance on the STAA’s purpose of protecting public health and safety. In a statement revealing his policy preferences, Judge Gorsuch said that, particularly where a statute’s purpose is as “ephemeral and generic” as “health and safety,” the majority should stick strictly to the text of the statute. Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

Judge Gorsuch’s Dissent Reveals the Intellectual Dishonesty of his Alleged Strict Textualism

Read in isolation, Judge Gorsuch’s dissent sounds plausible. He takes a strict textualist approach to statutory interpretation and so rejects any consideration of legislative intent. But a closer examination reveals that his alleged use of textualism is really a cloak for his policy preferences.

Here, Judge Gorsuch purportedly relies on the Oxford English Dictionary to support his conclusion that “operate” means, by definition, “[t]o cause or actuate the working of; to work (a machine, etc.).” And the rest of his analysis follows naturally. But the same textualist approach was also relied upon by the majority to reach a contrary conclusion, one that is consistent with the purpose of the statute:

The dissent believes Congress’s intent can be easily determined by simply choosing a favorite dictionary definition of the word and applying that to quickly conclude the statute is not ambiguous at all. . . .

. . . We, too, have found a dictionary definition of the word “operate” and discovered it means to “control the functioning of.” This definition clearly encompasses activities other than driving. . . . The only logical explanation [for the dissent’s interpretation] is that the dissent has concluded Congress used the word “operate” in the statute when it really meant “drive.” We are more comfortable limiting our review to the language Congress actually used. 

Id. at 1212 n.4 (emphasis added) (quoting Operate, Oxford Dictionaries Pro, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/operate).

Judge Gorsuch artfully concealed the discretion inherent in his analysis, and in doing so maintained the facade of being bound by the text of the STAA. Here, he used his discretion to conclude that an employee’s firing did not violate the STAA—even though that employee spent more than three hours in subzero temperatures, without heat, after notifying his employer that his trailer’s brakes had frozen—because the employee’s actions did not meet Judge Gorsuch’s cherry-picked definition of refusal to “operate.”

Instead of taking statutory text out of context, Judge Gorsuch could have relied upon well-established STAA precedent holding that an employee who moves a disabled trailer from the middle of a busy roadway to the shoulder of the road, after being told by his employer to remain in the roadway, has refused to operate his vehicle for purposes of the STAA whistleblower law. He could also consider the purpose of the statute the majority relies upon: “to promote the safe operation of commercial motor vehicles,” “to minimize dangers to the health of operators of commercial motor vehicles,” and “to ensure increased compliance with traffic laws and with . . . commercial motor vehicle safety and health regulations and standards.” 49 U.S.C. § 31131(a).

Judge Gorsuch’s dissent fails to address the fact that Mr. Maddin’s supervisor gave him another option other than waiting in the truck without heat—dragging a 41,000-pound trailer with inoperable brakes, which is prohibited by Department of Transportation regulations. Mr. Maddin refused to carry out that instruction, and therefore he is protected under the STAA. And Judge Gorsuch’s dissent does not address the ARB’s finding that Mr. Maddin engaged in STAA-protected conduct by reporting the faulty condition of the trailer (i.e., the frozen brakes).

Judge Gorsuch will likely testify at his confirmation hearing that he is a values-neutral umpire who interprets statutes according to their plain meaning. Here, the umpire had two choices in a case decided under substantial-evidence review—a standard of review that is highly deferential to the agency. Option One was to rely on the majority’s equally compelling dictionary definition that favored the worker, the purpose of the STAA whistleblower law, well-established case precedent construing the STAA, and common sense. Option Two was to rely upon an out-of-context dictionary definition to reverse the agency, while omitting key facts from the record and ignoring case precedent and the purpose of the statute. Is it a mere coincidence that Option Two favored the employer and left the worker out in the cold? It strains credulity to claim that the author of this dissent is merely calling balls and strikes.

Judge Gorsuch’s Derision of Worker-Protection Laws

Perhaps more revealing than Judge Gorsuch’s selective use of the dictionary, however, are his characterization of “health and safety” as “ephemeral and generic” statutory goals, as well as the wording and tone of his dissent. Judge Gorsuch refuses to consider the purpose of the STAA whistleblower-protection law because “[a]fter all, what under the sun, at least at some level of generality, doesn’t relate to ‘health and safety’?” TransAm Trucking, 833 F.3d at 1217 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting). If Judge Gorsuch were construing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, however, he would very likely consider and apply the purpose of the statute.  But according to Judge Gorsuch, the remedial goals of worker-protection laws should be ignored when construing those laws.

Note that in his dissent, Judge Gorsuch does not once refer to Mr. Maddin by name. Instead, he refers to Mr. Maddin repeatedly as a “trucker” and once as an “employee.” TransAm, on the other hand, is identified by name several times throughout the dissent. Moreover, Judge Gorsuch states that Mr. Maddin was stranded in “cold weather” and omits the fact that Mr. Madden was stuck in a truck, without heat, in subzero weather, and feared losing his feet, dying, and never seeing his family again. Minimizing Mr. Maddin’s precarious predicament enabled Judge Gorsuch to analogize Mr. Maddin’s conduct to that of an office worker who misused a work computer to “compose the great American novel.” Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting). But presumably, the officer worker’s appendages are not going numb in this irrelevant analogy. Given Judge Gorsuch’s dehumanization of Mr. Maddin, it is no surprise that he admits in his dissent that he deems “health and safety” to be “ephemeral and generic” statutory goals.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were approximately 3500 fatal crashes involving large trucks from 2011–2014. There is nothing “ephemeral” about laws regulating the safe operation of tractor-trailers or a whistleblower-protection law that enables truck drivers to refuse to drive unsafe vehicles. As Judge Gorsuch sat comfortably in his chambers, penning his dissent, did it occur to him that human lives are at stake when TransAm orders a driver to drag a 41,000-pound trailer with frozen brakes? Did this “pro-life” jurist consider that Mr. Maddin was having difficulty breathing and his appendages were going numb when he pleaded with his supervisor for permission to drive the truck, without the trailer, to a nearby gas station? Apparently, all those considerations, along with the purpose of the statute, are irrelevant where a cherry-picked dictionary definition enables Judge Gorsuch to construe a remedial law narrowly enough for the employer to prevail. If Judge Gorsuch is really acting as a values-neutral umpire, why does he deride the purpose of the STAA whistleblower-protection law as “ephemeral” and “generic”?

Many American workers often face the daunting choice of engaging in unsafe practices on the job or instead losing their jobs for opposing such practices. Federal enforcement of worker-safety and worker-protection laws is already feeble due to Congress’s deliberately starving OSHA of resources. And with a new Administration committed to gutting worker-safety laws and enforcement thereof, we can expect that the current unacceptable number of workers killed on the job—4836 in 2015—will increase. Judge Gorsuch’s dissent in TransAm Trucking portends that such laws will be further crippled using sham textualism.

Undoubtedly Judge Gorsuch is a talented jurist and dedicated public servant. But the “forgotten man” that President Trump claims to represent would be far better served by a mainstream jurist, such as Judge Merrick Garland, who would be faithful to the statutory language and purpose of worker-protection laws.

Supreme Court Nominee Has Put “Reasonable” into Reasonable Accommodation Obligations

Supreme Court nominee Judge GorsuchIn case your news and twitter accounts are down, and you otherwise have not heard the news…   President Trump has nominated Judge Gorsuch from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacant Supreme Court seat.  There are surely countless articles about his nomination hitting the airwaves even as I type this, but for employers who struggle with leave management issues, a quick review of the Hwang v. Kansas State University decision, authored by Judge Gorsuch, may provide employers with hope that leave management law could move in the right direction.  In Hwang, the Tenth Circuit determined that a more than a six month leave of absence was an unreasonable accommodation.  Some of the more memorable quotes from that decision include:

“Must an employer allow employees more than six months’ sick leave or face liability under the Rehabilitation Act? Unsurprisingly, the answer is almost always no.”

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“It perhaps goes without saying that an employee who isn’t capable of working for so long isn’t an employee capable of performing a job’s essential functions — and that requiring an employer to keep a job open for so long doesn’t qualify as a reasonable accommodation. After all, reasonable accommodations — typically things like adding ramps or allowing more flexible working hours — are all about enabling employees to work, not to not work.”

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“Still, it’s difficult to conceive how an employee’s absence for six months — an absence in which she could not work from home, part-time, or in any way in any place — could be consistent with discharging the essential functions of most any job in the national economy today. Even if it were, it is difficult to conceive when requiring so much latitude from an employer might qualify as a reasonable accommodation. Ms. Hwang’s is a terrible problem, one in no way of her own making, but it’s a problem other forms of social security aim to address. The Rehabilitation Act seeks to prevent employers from callously denying reasonable accommodations that permit otherwise qualified disabled persons to work — not to turn employers into safety net providers for those who cannot work.”

Although Hwang involved the Rehabilitation Act, his opinion addressed head on the EEOC’s views on ADA reasonable accommodations in the leave of absence context.  And with respect to “inflexible” leave policies that the EEOC has been pushing against in recent years, Judge Gorsuch said:

“Neither is there anything inherently discriminatory in the fact the University’s six-month leave policy is ‘inflexible,’ as Ms. Hwang would have us hold. To the contrary, in at least one way an inflexible leave policy can serve to protect rather than threaten the rights of the disabled — by ensuring  disabled employees’ leave requests aren’t secretly singled out for discriminatory treatment, as can happen in a leave system with fewer rules, more discretion, and less transparency.”

A nomination certainly doesn’t guarantee confirmation and, even if confirmed, Judge Gorsuch’s selection would not change ADA law overnight. However, Judge Gorsuch’s opinion in Hwang is arguably the most vigorous challenge to the EEOC’s view of leave as a reasonable accommodation and very well may be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for employers.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2017