Despite Relatively Few Employment Law Cases on the Docket, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Upcoming Term Could Have Major Implications in the Workplace


In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket has seemingly been jam-packed with employment law cases of massive consequence each and every term.  The upcoming term, however, is uncharacteristically light in this regard.  Nevertheless, it is highlighted by several disputes that could have massive implications in employment law—some dealing with traditional workplace issues, and others that, while not properly characterized as employment disputes, could nevertheless prove significant to the employment bar.  Indeed, the Court will hear three cases by early November, each of which offer it the potential to further shape the legal landscape for workers across the county.

Helix Energy Solutions Group Inc. v. Hewitt

On October 12, 2022, the Court will hear arguments in Helix regarding whether a foreman for a Texas-based oil and gas services company qualifies for overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), or is instead overtime-exempt based upon the so-called “highly-compensated workers” exemption.  

In Helix, the employer is hoping to overturn a decision handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that its employee was entitled to overtime compensation, despite earning more than $200,000 per year.  While FLSA regulations dictate that employees earning total annual compensation of at least $107,432 are overtime-exempt, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the employee was entitled to overtime because he was paid based on a daily rate, rather than an annual salary—relying upon language in the regulation stating that, for the exemption to apply, the employee must be “paid on a salary or fee basis.”  29 C.F.R. § 541.601.

If the petition is unsuccessful—meaning the employee’s entitlement to overtime is confirmed—the Helix decision could have considerable ripple effects, particularly in the energy industry, where workers are often compensated by the day, rather than on a salary basis. 

Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College & Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. University of North Carolina

The Court will also hear argument this term in connection with two related challenges to the manner in which Harvard University and the University of North Carolina consider race in their admissions processes.  Specifically, the challengers argue that the universities’ affirmative action programs penalize Asian-American and white students in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and ask the Court to reconsider earlier rulings allowing race-based criteria for higher education.

While not directly related to employment law, these two high-profile cases could have significant implications in employment law, and thus have the attention of employers seeking to achieve a diverse workforce.  Specifically, if the Court rules against race-conscious admissions policies, private businesses’ diversity initiatives could be in limbo.

Industry groups—including Google, Meta (née Facebook), and Apple—have filed amicus briefs urging the Court to uphold the schools’ policies, arguing that they and other companies rely on college admissions programs to produce a diverse workforce, and citing the benefits that diversity, equity, and inclusion in hiring has afforded them.  The Students for Fair Admissions cases, which will be heard separately October 31, 2022, also have implications for corporate shareholders who have been increasingly pushing companies to disclose gender and diversity data about their workforces.

Mallory v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co.

Finally, on November 8, 2022, the Court will hear argument on a case that could potentially allow workers to “forum shop” for a favorable venue to sue employers with a national presence.  Mallory involves a claim brought by a railroad worker to hold his former employer liable for his alleged exposure to asbestos and toxic chemicals in Virginia and Ohio during his employment.  The employee, a Virginia resident, brought his Federal Employers’ Liability Act complaint against the Virginia-based company in Pennsylvania state court, even though his alleged injuries lacked any connection to Pennsylvania.  

Thus, the question before the Court is whether a company must defend itself against lawsuits in a state based only on its registration to do business there.  The employee argues that his former employee consented to personal jurisdiction under the Pennsylvania’s long-arm statute when it registered to do business there. Pennsylvania’s highest state court ruled against him; however, if the justices of the Court side with the employee, a national company could face litigation of employment law or other claims in any state where it’s registered, regardless of the parties’ connections there.  This could mean, for example, that employees in Southern states without their own anti-discrimination laws may be able to avail themselves of the longer statutes of limitation and greater potential damages authorized by statutes in more employee-friendly states like New York and California.
 

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About Alex Hartzband

Alex Hartzband's practice is focused on employment litigation. Alex is a Partner in the firm's New York office.

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