America’s next President will potentially have the authority to nominate more than one United States Supreme Court Justice before the end of his or her presidency. Notably, during the final debate, this subject of Supreme Court appointments by the President Elect was one of the six topics for discussion and was identified as one of the top issues among voters. Employers should take note because the Supreme Court may hear several cases in the upcoming term that could have significant implications for employers across the country with respect to (1) the enforceability of class action waivers, (2) pre-suit obligations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in discrimination complaints, and (3) the issue of transgender rights.
(1) The Enforceability of Class Action Waivers in Arbitration Agreements
Following the Court’s ruling in 2011 in ATT Mobility LLC v. Concepcion1, where the Court in a 5-4 decision held that the Federal Arbitration Act preempted California from refusing to enforce class action waivers in consumer contracts, many employers have utilized waivers in arbitration agreements as a method of avoiding, or reducing, the risks of class or collective actions by employees alleging employment-related claims such as wage-and-hour violations and unlawful discrimination.
However, the safe haven apparently created under Concepcion has been under attack and led to inconsistent federal circuit court rulings applying its holding. Now, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to reconcile a split in the federal circuits regarding the enforceability of class action waivers in arbitration agreements. Because former Justice Scalia authored the Concepcion opinion, his replacement could impact its holding.
(2) EEOC Obligations with Respect to Discrimination Complaints
Recent discrimination cases have challenged aspects of the EEOC’s pre-suit obligations to investigate and attempt to conciliate discrimination charges before filing a lawsuit. Many judicial opinions have cited MachMining LLC v. EEOC2, a case in which the Supreme Court held that the EEOC’s statutory obligation to attempt conciliation with an employer as a prerequisite to a Title VII suit is subject to judicial review—although the scope of that review is narrow—and also established that form letters announcing the initiation and conclusion of the conciliation process alone do not satisfy the statutory obligation to attempt to facilitate conciliation with the employer.
In October 2016, the Supreme Court denied certification in EEOC v. Sterling Jewelers Inc.3, a matter of first impression in which the Second Circuit cited MachMining LLC v. EEOC in a decision permitting the EEOC to pursue a nationwide sex discrimination lawsuit on behalf of female retail store employees. Sterling Jewelers Inc.4 established that while a court may review whether the EEOC conducted an investigation into a formal charge of discrimination as a prerequisite for bringing an enforcement action under Title VII, it may not review the sufficiency of the agency’s investigation.
The case to watch is The Geo Grp. v. EEOC5, which is being docketed for review by the Supreme Court. The Ninth Circuit cited MachMining6 in a decision that allows the EEOC to litigate 19 sex discrimination claims despite the fact that the agency did not identify the alleged victims until after filing the lawsuit on the basis that MachMining7 permits the identification of a class of people as an alternative to identifying the individual alleged victims.
While many believe that the 2015 MachMining opinion could have potentially reversed the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Geo Grp., the Court (with a newly appointed Justice) could possibly walk back the limited judicial review permitted by the previous Court or establish a broader scope of judicial discretion in determining whether or not an attempt of conciliation with an employer took place in order to satisfy the EEOC’s statutory requirement under Title VII.
(3) Transgender Rights
In August, the Supreme Court stayed the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Gloucester Cnty. Sch. Bd. v G.G.8, keeping Grimm, an individual who was born a female, but identifies as a male, from using the boys’ restroom at school, while it decided whether it would take the case. On Friday, October 28, the Supreme Court announced it would in fact take up the issue. The Court’s holding on whether the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of the word “sex” is appropriate, as it relates to Title IX discrimination cases, could have wide ranging impact on litigation involving H.B. 2 from North Carolina and employers as they address transgender issues in the workplace.