To be a Dodd-Frank whistleblower, individual must complain to SEC

Dodd-Rank is the nation’s leading securities-related whistleblower law. What if an individual complains, not to the SEC, but to the company at-issue, is a mere internal complaint to the company sufficient to trigger Dodd-Frank’s protections? In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court, after reviewing the text of Dodd-Frank itself, held the answer was clear: Congress wrote Dodd-Frank to protect only complaints to the SEC. Therefore a complaint to the company at-issue, alone, is insufficient to trigger Dodd-Frank’s protections.

The case is also notable for the absence of analysis regarding Chevron deference. Chevron deference is the legal term used to refer to the practice of courts deferring to agency interpretations of statutes. Here, while Dodd-Frank itself clearly required a complaint to the SEC, the SEC had interpreted the language more broadly, saying that a complaint to a company alone should also be protected. The concept of Chevron deference has become quite controversial, and commentators anticipated this might be the case by which the Supreme Court revisited the topic. However, the Supreme Court, having decided the language of the statute itself was clear, had no opportunity to do so. The continuing viability of Chevron deference remains an issue for another case to resolve.

Source: Digital Realty v. Somers, case no. 16-01276 (Sup. Ct. 2/21/18).

Supreme Court holds deadline for appealing a federal lawsuit is not jurisdictional

Prior case law had suggested and many litigators had assumed that the deadline for filing an appeal in a federal lawsuit is jurisdictional, meaning it cannot be waived or extended and must be met at the risk of losing an otherwise meritorious appeal. In a recent case, the appellant requested and received, before her deadline to appeal, a 2-month extension of the deadline to appeal. That extension was one month more than the federal rules allow. Those federal rules are adopted by the courts, specifically the Supreme Court, they are not laws made by Congress.

The appellate court held that the deadline for her to appeal was jurisdictional and therefore the lower court had lacked authority to extend it so long. Accordingly the appellate court dismissed her appeal.

A unanimous Supreme Court disagreed. While the rule is in fact a rule, and failure to file a timely appeal still generally will warrant a dismissal, the Supreme Court held that  the deadline is not jurisdictional. It is merely a rule of court. It may be extended. To be jurisdictional, the Supreme Court held, it would have had to have been the product of Congressional legislation; the Supreme Court held it does not itself have the authority to create jurisdictional deadlines in its own rules. Accordingly, the dismissal of the appeal was vacated.

Source: Hamer v. Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, No. 16-658 (U.S. Nov. 08, 2017), Court Opinion

Supreme Court holds that trial court analysis of EEOC subpoena’s enforceability is entitled to discretion, not de novo review.

In a decision that probably surprised no one except the often-reversed and reversed-in-this-case Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court held that a trial court, not an appellate court, is in the best position to review the particulars of a subpoena.

Interestingly, the decision, which can be seen as reinforcing the EEOC’s ability to issue subpoenas – or at least reducing judicial scrutiny over EEOC subpoenas – was technically a loss for the EEOC. The EEOC had issued a subpoena for contact information for employees who’d taken a certain test, nationwide. The company objected, and the trial court agreed with the company, holding the EEOC’s nationwide request was overly broad. The EEOC then appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which ruled it could review the trial court’s ruling de novo (from scratch) without having to give the trial court any deference. The Supreme Court disagreed and sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit. Now, the EEOC will decide if it still wants the information, and if so, it will have the heavy burden of proving not only that  it is entitled to the information but that the trial court was so wrong when it decided otherwise that it abused its discretion.

While the EEOC lost the Supreme Court case, companies should be mindful of the overarching lesson: The EEOC has broad subpoena power, and a trial court may now be the only judicial body with substantial authority to hear a challenge to an EEOC subpoena.

For an example of how EEOC subpoenas are analyzed for enforceability, see this posting.

The case was McLane Co., Inc. v. EEOC, — S.Ct. — (4/3/17/).

Supreme Court review over benefits liability likely in union jurisdictional disputes

Sometimes, companies sign collective bargaining agreements (CBA), not realizing that each promises the same work to different unions. In this case, the employer allegedly signed one CBA that promised forklift and skidster work to the Operating Engineers and another CBA that promised the same work to Laborers. This can create a jurisdictional dispute; in other words, it can lead the two unions to argue over the work.

Under section 10(k) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has authority to decide which union gets the work in a jurisdictional dispute.

In this 10(k) case, the Board decided that the Operating Engineers not the Laborers had the better claim to forklift and skidster work. Despite the Board’s ruling, the Laborers sued the company for benefits under its collective bargaining agreement. In effect, the Laborers argued that the Operating Engineers could have the work, but the company should have to pay benefits to both unions’ trust funds. The law that governs liability for benefits is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The Laborers argued that the Board’s 10(k) authority only extends to determinations of which union has the better claim to the work under the NLRA, not to which union is entitled to benefits under ERISA.

The Circuit Courts are split on the issue. The Third, Ninth, District of Columbia and now Sixth Circuits hold that the Board’s 10(k) ruling governs the ERISA claim, meaning the losing union has no claim to the work under the NLRA or for benefit payments under ERISA. The Seventh Circuit has held otherwise.

The split in Circuit Courts foretells possible Supreme Court review, especially because, here, even as it joined the majority of other Circuits, the Sixth Circuit did so over a strong dissent.

Employers with multiple CBAs should carefully review the way each of their agreements describes covered work. Overlapping descriptions should be clarified.

The case was Orrand v. Hunt Construction Group, Inc., — F.3d — (6th Cir. 2017).