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Supreme Court reverses Ninth Circuit because … “Federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity”

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in a potentially landmark Equal Pay Act case, because … “Federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.” In this per curiam decision, the Supreme Court, not surprisingly, held that a judge needs to be alive to issue a ruling in a case.

How could the Ninth Circuit have thought otherwise? It was an exceedingly controversial case. The Ninth Circuit would have split evenly without the deceased judge’s vote, so the Ninth Circuit, oddly, decided to go ahead and count his vote. In fairness he had expressed his intent to vote one way, and had actually authored an opinion accordingly. He unfortunately passed away though before the opinion was issued. The Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit erred by continuing to count his vote (in this case and others). The Court explained that a judge’s vote cannot be counted until an opinion is filed, especially because “a judge may change his or her position up to the very moment when a decision is released.”

Because Judge Reinhardt was no longer a judge at the time when the en banc decision in this case was filed, the Ninth Circuit erred in counting him as a member of the majority. That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death.  But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.

The underlying case is very controversial. As explained in a previous blog post, the issue has the potential to bring a pay-history ban to all 50 states by way of federal common law, by interpreting the longstanding Equal Pay Act as effectively banning inquiries and consideration of pay history.

per curiam decision is a decision issued by a court with more than one judge (like the Supreme Court and other appellate courts) that is authored by the court itself, without identifying one or more individual judge’s contributions to the writing of the opinion or even votes in the case. It is not signed by anyone judge (though individual judges may, if they choose, sign dissents).

Source: Yovino v. Rizo, 586 U.S. —, case no. 18-272 (2/25/19)

California continues its contortions over arbitration agreements in employment cases

A trio of recent cases illustrateS how federal and state courts in California continue to struggle with their efforts to reconcile the recent pro-arbitration rulings by the Supreme Court with the historically anti-arbitration approach in California.

In NBCUniversal Media, LLC v. Pickett, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals held that an employee was required, under the Supreme Court’s 2009 14 Penn Plaza decision, to arbitrate individual employment discrimination claims under his union’s collective bargaining agreement’s arbitration clause, which read “neither the Union nor any aggrieved employee may file an action or complaint in court on any claim that arises under [an anti-discrimination clause], having expressly waived the right to so file.”

While that seemed to be a relatively straightforward application of the Supreme Court’s arbitration cases, the California Court of Appeals seemed to make the waters muddier in a pair of other cases.

In one case, Del Rosario Martinez v. Ready Pac Produce, Inc., the California Court of Appeals noted that the Supreme Court ruled in its 2011 Concepcion case and then in its 2018 Epic Resources case that an arbitration agreement is enforceable even if it means the employee is unable to pursue a class action. In line with those decisions, the Court held that the plaintiff was required to arbitrate her wage claims even though she was unable to pursue a class action.

However, in the other case, Ramos v. Superior Court of San Francisco County, the California Court of Appeals considered the same Supreme Court decisions and held they did not alter the fundamental underlying approach that California has taken against arbitration of employment claims, since the California Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Armendariz. Under the Armendariz approach, the Court then held the arbitration agreement in this case was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable under California law, even though it would have been enforceable under federal law:

In sum, the arbitration agreement as applied to Ramos’s statutory and wrongful termination claims contains four unconscionable terms. The provisions requiring Ramos to pay half the costs of arbitration, pay her own attorney fees, restricting the ability of the panel of arbitrators to “override” or “substitute its judgment” for that of the partnership, and the confidentiality clause, are unconscionable and significantly inhibit Ramos’s ability to pursue her unwaivable statutory claims. Because we are unable to cure the unconscionability simply by striking these clauses, and would instead have to reform the parties’ agreement in order to enforce it, we must find the agreement void as a matter of law.

These three cases don’t answer every, or even most, questions about arbitration agreements in California employment cases. They do illustrate the federal and state courts continuing efforts to try to reconcile California’s Armendariz approach with the Supreme Court’s. Employers who wish to utilize arbitration agreements in California should carefully consider their options.

Employers should have background check forms reviewed immediately, especially in Ninth Circuit

In a surprising decision, the Ninth Circuit has issued a ruling that an employer violates both federal and California state background check laws when it uses relatively common language.

The federal law that governs background checks is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Its California equivalent is its Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (ICRAA). Both require certain content be included in the paperwork that goes to and must be signed by the candidate. Both state that nothing else may be set forth in those forms. This is called the “standalone requirement.” In other words, the requirement is that the background check forms be standalone documents; they cannot be part of a job application or the like.

In this case, the forms stated the information required by FCRA and ICRAA. Then they added similar language for four other states, with headers setting off the state-specific language like “Minnesota and Oklahoma applicants or employees only. Check this box if ….” and “New York applicants or employees only. By signing below, you also acknowledge ….”

The Ninth Circuit held those additional state-specific disclosures violated FCRA and ICRAA because they had nothing to do with the particular individual being asked to fill out the form (an applicant for employment, in this case) who lived and was applying to work in California. The Ninth Circuit said that this seemingly clear language was nonetheless “extraneous” and “as likely to confuse as it is to inform.” Therefore the Ninth Circuit held it violated both FCRA and ICRAA’s standalone requirement. 

Source: Gilberg v. California Check Cashing Stores, LLC, case no. 17-16263 (9th Cir. 1/29/19).

Pay history bans coming, at a federal level, by way of the Circuit Courts?

A growing number of state and local governments prohibit asking applicants about their pay history or using prior employer pay histories as a basis for setting employee pay. Two Circuit Court cases suggest that such a ban may be coming, not by way of state and local legislation, but at a federal level under currently existing federal laws known as Title VII and the Equal Pay Act.

The Circuit Courts are the nation’s federal appellate courts. They are divided (and numbered) by region. They are for practical purposes generally the highest courts in the land, just beneath the Supreme Court of the United States. Very few cases result in Supreme Court review; the Circuit Courts resolve the vast bulk of federal appellate litigation without cases ever rising to the Supreme Court.

Pay history bans are growing across the country because advocates for equal pay, particularly between men and women, contend that one reason women earn less than men in many positions, is simply that women tend to have previously earned less than men in prior positions. In other words, they contend it is a self-perpetuating cycle.

In one case, the Ninth Circuit held last year, in 2017, that, consistent with its precedent, an employer may set pay levels purely on the basis of pay histories. However last summer the Ninth Circuit withdrew that decision and ordered the matter reheard en banc (by the entire bench of its judges). The case is pending reconsideration.

In the other case, the Eleventh Circuit just ruled in a Georgia case that an employer was not entitled to summary judgment, in other words, it would have to explain itself to a jury, where the female plaintiff argued she was underpaid compared to her male predecessor. The Eleventh Circuit case did not go so far as to hold that pay histories cannot be considered. It simply held, on the basis of the record before it, that pay histories were not themselves enough to warrant ruling for that employer. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision may be limited to its facts in that, there, the company’s HR manager had testified to general female-male pay disparities at the company and further that the company’s general manager had made an anti-female remark.

Employers should consider monitoring pay history bans.

Source: Rizo v. Yovino, case no. 15-372 (9th Circuit) (case pending reconsideration en banc); Bowen v. Manheim Remarketing, Inc., case no. 16-17237 (11th Cir. 2/21/18).

Employer’s attorney may be held liable for retaliating against client’s former employee

In a decision that is already drawing harsh criticism, the Ninth Circuit held that an attorney may be liable to his client’s former employee for retaliation where the attorney contacted federal immigration authorities at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to advise, “if there is an interest in apprehending” the plaintiff, he would be attending a deposition on a certain date. ICE conducted its own investigation and determined “based on our records he has no legal status.” The plaintiff learned that ICE was aware of him, alleged that realizing the same had caused him severe, and as a result, he said, settled his wage-hour lawsuit against the former employer. After settling with the company, he sued its attorney, again, not his own attorney but opposing counsel. The Ninth Circuit noted that attorney had allegedly communicated with ICE about five other plaintiffs and held that the plaintiff’s claim should be allowed to proceed.

In doing so, the Ninth Circuit reviewed the statutory language of FLSA’s retaliation provisions. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the nation’s primary wage-hour law. The Ninth Circuit read its anti-retaliation language as being broader than its substantive provisions regarding overtime, minimum wage, etc. The Ninth Circuit said the broad anti-retaliation language was more like Title VII’s (the nation’s leading anti-discrimination law). The Ninth Circuit held that, given the breadth of FLSA’s anti-retaliation language, such a claim is viable.

The decision has been called “flat-out bonkers” and possibly “the year’s worst employment law decision” and is being cited as an example of a decision by a court that “has officially lost its mind.”

Source: Arias v. Raimondo, Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit 2017 – Google Scholar