United States: 4 Key Trends In Workplace Class Action Litigation For 2017: #4 U.S. Supreme Court

Last Updated: January 24 2018
Article by Gerald L. Maatman Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The fourth and final key trend from our 14th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report involves rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Over the past few years, the country's highest court has issued a number of rulings that impacted the prosecution and defense of class actions in significant ways.  Today, we provide readers with an outline of the most important workplace rulings issued by the Supreme Court in 2017, as well as which upcoming decisions employers should watch for in 2018.  Read the full breakdown below!

Over the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts increasingly has shaped the contours of complex litigation exposures through its rulings on class action and governmental enforcement litigation issues. Many of these decisions have elucidated the requirements for pursuing employment-related class actions.

The 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes and the 2013 decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend are the two most significant examples. Those rulings are at the core of class certification issues under Rule 23. To that end, federal and state courts cited Wal-Mart in 586 rulings in 2017; they cited Comcast in 238 cases in 2017.

The past year also saw a change in the composition of the Supreme Court in April of 2017, with Justice Neil Gorsuch assuming the seat of Antonin Scalia after his passing in 2016. Given the age of some of the other sitting Justices, President Trump may have the opportunity to fill additional seats on the Supreme Court in 2018 and beyond, and thereby influence a shift in the ideology of the Supreme Court toward a more conservative and strict constructionist jurisprudence. In turn, this is apt to change legal precedents that shape and define the playing field for workplace class action litigation.

Rulings In 2017

In terms of direct decisions by the Supreme Court impacting workplace class actions, this past year was no exception. In 2017, the Supreme Court decided seven cases – three employment-related cases and four class action cases – that will influence complex employment-related litigation in the coming years. The three "game-changers" in 2017 can be seen in the following graphic:

The employment-related rulings included one case brought under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, one ERISA case, and one EEOC case. A rough scorecard of the decisions reflects two distinct plaintiff/worker-side victories, and defense-oriented rulings in five cases.

  • EEOC v. McLane Co., 137 S. Ct. 1159 (2017) – Decided on February 21, 2017, the case involved the applicable standard of appellate review of district court decisions to quash or enforce EEOC subpoenas. The Supreme Court held that the standard must be based on an abuse of discretion, and contrary lower court decisions – which called for de novo review – were rejected. The EEOC has broad statutory authority to issue subpoenas in the course of investigating charges of employment discrimination, and it may seek enforcement of its subpoenas in federal court when employers refuse to comply with them. In that event, the applicable test favors enforcement of the subpoena. The Supreme Court determined that if the charge is proper and the material requested is relevant, the subpoena should be enforced unless the employer can establish that the subpoena is too indefinite, has been issued for an illegitimate purpose, or is unduly burdensome. In sum, the Supreme Court underscored the breadth of the agency's authority to subpoena information from employers in the course of investigating discrimination charges.
  • Expressions Hair Design, et al. v. Schneiderman, 137 S. Ct. 1144 (2017) – Decided on March 29, 2017, this case involved a class action by a group of New York merchants, arguing that a New York statute that prohibits merchants from charging a surcharge to customers who use credit cards violated the First Amendment because it regulates what they say about their prices. The lower courts had dismissed the suit out of hand, concluding that price regulations regulated conduct alone and thus are immune from scrutiny under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held that because the statute goes beyond the pure regulation of price sufficiently into the realm of regulating speech, it is subject to scrutiny under the First Amendment. As a result, the case was remanded for further consideration of the validity of the statute under the First Amendment. The ruling is a narrow one, but ensures the continuation of class action litigation over the New York statute.
  • Advocate Health Care Network, et al. v. Stapleton, 137 S. Ct. 1652 (2017) – Decided on June 5, 2017, this ruling determined that pension plans that otherwise meet the definition of a church plan definition under the ERISA can qualify for the exemption without being established by a church. The decision is the culmination of a wave of ERISA class actions brought by employees of religiously affiliated non-profit hospitals who asserted that the employers improperly claimed that their pension plans were ERISA-exempt "church plans."
  • Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, et al., 137 S. Ct. 1702 (2017) – Decided on June 12, 2017, this ruling determined that the voluntary dismissal of individual claims by class representatives after denial of class certification deprives appellate courts of jurisdiction over review of the underlying class certification decision. The case involved consideration of a strategy for appealing denials of class certification whereby plaintiffs responded to a denial of class certification with a voluntary agreement to dismiss their claims. With that dismissal in hand, they would claim they have a final order that they can appeal, planning to revive their claims if the appeal reversed the certification order. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected this practice. It held that plaintiffs in putative class actions cannot transform a tentative interlocutory order into a final judgment simply by dismissing their claims with prejudice – subject, no less, to the right to revive those claims if the denial of class certification was reversed on appeal. The ruling should help corporate defendants in defeating piece-meal attacks on favorable class certification orders.
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., et al. v. Superior Court Of California, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017) – Decided on June 19, 2017, this opinion established limitations on personal jurisdiction over non-resident plaintiffs in "mass actions," a litigation strategy often utilized by plaintiffs' class action lawyers to sue corporations in plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions that have little to no connection with the dispute. The Supreme Court determined that the requisite connection between the corporate defendant and the litigation forum must be based on more than a combination of the company's connections with the state and the similarity of the claims of the resident plaintiffs and the non-resident claimants. The ruling reversed a lower court decision that hundreds of plaintiffs who sued a corporation in California state court over alleged injuries associated with a corporation's product could not sue in that state because they were not residents. In effect, it reversed a decision of the California Supreme Court and directed the dismissal of 592 non-California claims from 33 other states. The ruling has significant implications for the location and scope of class action litigation. As a result, the ruling supports the view that plaintiffs cannot simply "forum shop" in large class actions, and instead must sue where the corporate defendant has significant contacts for purposes of general jurisdiction or limit the class definition to residents of the state where the lawsuit is filed. It should provide some measure of protection to corporations that often are hauled into plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions across the country to which they have nor the plaintiffs suing them had any connection.
  • CalPERS, et al. v. ANZ Securities, Inc., 137 S. Ct. 2042 (2017) – Decided on June 26, 2017, this decision involved a relatively technical question regarding the right to opt-out of a class action – when plaintiffs file a class action, are members of the class entitled to opt-out and represent themselves, and how statutes of limitations work in that situation. Federal securities laws include two different kinds of filing deadlines for claims about misrepresentations in connection with the issuance of securities, including a one-year deadline running from the discovery of the untrue statement and an outside three-year deadline running from the date on which the statement was made. The Supreme Court held that tolling under American Pipe applies only to the one-year deadline, not the three-year deadline. Applying that rule, it barred the action brought in this case by CalPERS, which had opted-out of a large class action brought against Lehman Brothers; the original action was brought in a timely manner, but CalPERS did not opt-out of that action until more than three years after the challenged statements. The ruling closes off a tactic of successive class claims by barring the traditional power of lower federal courts to modify statutory time limits in the name of equity despite any practical obstacles this creates in class actions.
  • Czyzewski, et al. v. Jevic Holding Co., 137 S. Ct. 973 (2017) – Decided on March 22, 2017, this case involved the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification ("WARN") Act and the interplay between worker rights under that statute and the rights of creditors in bankruptcy proceedings after a company allegedly violates the WARN Act. In considering whether priority in distributing assets in bankruptcy may proceed in a manner that allegedly violates the priority scheme in the Bankruptcy Code, the Supreme Court held that such a distribution is improper and priority rules may not be evaded in Chapter 11 structured dismissals. The Supreme Court's ruling protects workers with WARN claims and bars priority deviations in bankruptcies implemented through non-consensual structured dismissals.

The decisions in Advocate Health Care Network, Baker, Bristol-Myers, CalPERS, Expressions Hair Designs, Jevic, and McLane Co. are sure to shape and influence workplace class action litigation and government enforcement litigation in a profound manner. Theses rulings will impact standing concepts and jurisdictional challenges, liability under the WARN and the ERISA, appeals of class certification decisions, challenges to EEOC administrative subpoenas, and rules on American Pipe tolling and application of statute of limitations in class actions. To the extent that extrinsic restrictions on class actions – i.e., limits on the ability of representative plaintiffs to appeal certification orders (as in Baker), and jurisdictional restrictions on bringing cases in "plaintiff-friendly" jurisdictions (as in Bristol-Myers) – were tightened, class actions will become harder to maintain and litigate. On the other hand, McLane Co. is certainly a setback for employers and strengthens the EEOC's ability to conduct wide-ranging administrative investigations through its subpoena power.

Rulings Expected In 2018

Equally important for the coming year, the Supreme Court accepted five additional cases for review in 2017 – that will be decided in 2018 – that also will impact and shape class action litigation and government enforcement lawsuits faced by employers.

Those cases include three employment lawsuits and two class action cases. The Supreme Court undertook oral arguments on two of these cases in 2017; the other three will have oral arguments in 2018.

The corporate defendants in each case have sought rulings seeking to limit the use of class actions or raise substantive defenses to class actions or employment-related claims. Further complicating several of these cases, government agencies have either taken opposing stances with each other or reversed positions they held in pervious Supreme Court terms or in the lower court proceedings in these cases.

  • Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA & Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris, 16-285, 16-300 & 16-307 – Argued on October 2, 2017, these three consolidated appeals in employment cases deal with the interpretation of workplace arbitration agreements between employers and employees and whether class action waivers within such agreements – which require workers to arbitrate any claims on an individual basis (and waive the ability to bring or participate in a class action or collective action) – violate employees' rights under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in "concerted activities" in pursuit. The Supreme Court's ultimate decision is likely to have far-reaching implications for litigation of class actions and collective actions. The issue started when the NLRB under the Obama Administration began challenging employers' use of arbitration agreements with class action waivers. During briefing of the issue before the Supreme Court, The Department of Justice under President Trump opposed the NLRB's position, and has sided with employers and argued that the Federal Arbitration Act favors the validity and enforcement of arbitration agreements that include class waivers.
  • Cyan, Inc., et al. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, 15-1439 – Argued on November 28, 2017, this class action case poses the issue of whether federal law bars state courts from hearing certain securities class actions. The case turns on interpretation of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 – which imposes tougher standards on securities class actions brought in federal courts – and if it mandates that state courts can no longer hear class actions based on the Securities Act of 1933. The ultimate ruling by the Supreme Court will impact what many view as a "cottage industry" of state court-based class action filings in states such as California where class action lawyers target public companies with securities claims over drops in stock process.
  • Encino Motors, LLC v. Navarro, et al., 16-1362 – In this case, the Supreme Court will examine whether service advisors at car dealerships are exempt under 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(10)(A) from the overtime pay provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The future ruling in the case may have far-reaching implications on the legal tests for interpretation of statutory exemptions under the FLSA. A broader reading of the exemption potentially could reduce the number of workers allowed to assert wage & hour claims against their employers. The case is set for argument on January 17, 2018.
  • Janus, et al. v. AFSCME, 16-1466 – In this employment case, the Supreme Court will consider whether Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), should be overruled and public-sector "agency shop" arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment so as to prevent public-sector unions from collecting mandatory fees from non-members. In deciding the constitutionality of "fair share fees" being imposed on public-sector employees as a condition of employment, the Supreme Court's future ruling likely will impact millions of workers in 22 states that do not have right-to-work laws. Since many workers are apt to cease paying union dues if the fair share fee payments requirement is abolished, the future ruling will have a significant impact on the ability of public-sector unions to conduct their business. The case is set for oral argument on February 26, 2018.
  • Resh, et al. v. China Agritech, Inc., 17-432 – In this class action case, the Supreme Court will examine whether the tolling rule for class actions established in American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974), tolls the statute of limitations to permit a previously absent class member to bring a subsequent class action outside the applicable limitations period. In American Pipe, the Supreme Court held that the filing of a class action tolls the running of the statute of limitations for all putative members of the class who make timely motions to intervene after the lawsuit is deemed inappropriate for class action status. In essence, a future ruling in this case will limit or expand the tolling rule in American Pipe to apply only to subsequent individual claims or if it is expanded broadly to successive class actions where plaintiffs were unnamed class members in failed class actions. The case has yet to be set for oral argument.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue decisions in these five cases in 2018.

Implications For Employers

Each decision outlined above may have significant implications for employers and for the defense of high-stakes class action litigation. Further, the decision in Epic Systems / E & Y / Murphy Oil may well end up being one of the most significant rulings for employers since Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes in 2011. Employers have to keep a close eye on this case, since the decision may shift the class action landscape in terms of the ability of employees to bring suit against a company. As always, we will closely monitor all Supreme Court case developments and report them to our readers. Stay tuned!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Gerald L. Maatman Jr.
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