Minimum wage laws invite controversy, and Alabama’s latest tug-of-war between the state and its largest city is going to get another wider review. You may recall that back in 2015, Birmingham, Alabama, passed a local minimum wage law. On the heels of that move, the Alabama Legislature then passed a state-wide minimum wage law, preempting local city laws. In response to the state’s new law, some Birmingham citizens, along with the NAACP, contended that the law discriminated against minorities and filed suit. After the federal district court dismissed the case, in July 2018 a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding the plaintiffs asserted a plausible 14th Amendment claim. Under that decision, the litigation could go forward. That ruling, however, was recently vacated, and now every judge on the Eleventh Circuit court will weigh in on the matter.

Minimum Wage Controversy

In April 2015, the Birmingham City Council passed a resolution calling on the Alabama Legislature to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour. The Alabama Legislature declined, so the Birmingham City Council adopted its own ordinance to raise the minimum wage, first to $8.50 per hour and then to $10.10 per hour.

Almost immediately thereafter, a state representative introduced a bill to quash the local ordinance and establish a uniform minimum wage throughout the state. The state has no minimum wage above the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The Alabama House passed the bill in February 2016. In the meantime, the Birmingham City ordinance raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour went into effect, but only briefly. The next day, the Alabama Senate passed, and then Gov. Bentley signed, the Minimum Wage Act mandating the minimum wage be set at the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour and preempting all local laws. The law preempts all local labor and employment laws that a city or municipality might attempt.

Procedural Background

A few months later, a group of Birmingham residents, along with public interest groups, filed suit against the governor and state attorney general claiming racial discrimination under the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The plaintiffs contended that the state law has both a discriminatory purpose and effect. The state argued in response that the law is facially neutral. The federal district court dismissed all claims in February 2017, and the plaintiffs appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

The three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the claims under the 13th and 15th Amendments, as well as under the Voting Rights Act. However, it reversed the district court’s dismissal as to one claim, finding that the plaintiffs stated a plausible claim that the Minimum Wage Act purposely discriminated against Birmingham’s black citizens in violation of the 14th Amendment. In reversing, the panel highlighted that, according to the complaint, the act denied 37 percent of the city’s black wage earners a higher wage, compared to only 27 percent of white workers. Further, according to the complaint, black workers earn, on average, $1.41 less per hour in the city and $2.12 less per hour statewide than white workers. The panel’s ruling found it plausible that the act bore more heavily on black workers and that the plaintiffs had indeed stated a viable claim, deeming the legislative vote to have been “rushed, reactionary, and racially polarized.”

Shortly after the panel’s ruling, the State of Alabama and its attorney general filed a motion to have the matter reheard by the entire Circuit Court. In its motion, the state said the case “raises fundamental questions about the dignity of States, the efficacy of federal-court proceedings, the standard for finding state-sanctioned racism, and the role of courts in shaping public discourse” making it “an exceptionally important [case] that absolutely requires the full Court’s attention.”

Ruling Vacated and To Be Reviewed by Entire Circuit Panel

On January 30, the Eleventh Circuit granted the rehearing request (called “rehearing en banc”), thereby vacating the previous decision. Now the entire Circuit Court (12 judges) will review the claims and the district court’s dismissal. A rehearing of this nature is generally rare and granted only when necessary to maintain uniformity of decisions or for questions of “exceptional importance.” Reading the tea leaves of the decision suggests that the court will alter or revise the panel’s previous ruling in some way, but that is far from certain. Stay tuned for what will be a significant ruling related to Alabama’s minimum wage law and the discrimination allegations. For now, however, the minimum wage in Birmingham is still $7.25 an hour.