On December 13, 2019, a split Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (sitting en banc) ruled that several black plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the discriminatory intent behind an Alabama law that blocked the city of Birmingham from increasing its local minimum wage. Lewis v. Governor of Alabama, No. 11009.

The case arose in what the Eleventh Circuit describes as a “political tug-of-war” between the Alabama Legislature and the City of Birmingham, which has a majority black population, over economic policy. Back in 2016, just a day after Birmingham increased its minimum wage from the federal rate of $7.25 per hour to a heightened rate of $10.10 per hour through Ordinance 16-28, the state passed Act No. 2016-18, which effectively nullified the new city ordinance.

Shortly thereafter, several minimum wage workers joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other interest groups to file this action against the governor and the state attorney general claiming that the Act was passed with the intent to discriminate against them on account of their race in violation of numerous laws. The district court dismissed the action. Then a three-judge panel reversed the district court’s decision on the sole issue that the attorney general may have violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

On December 13, 2019, the full court reversed the earlier panel and articulated two reasons the plaintiffs lacked standing to pursue their claim against the attorney general. First, the plaintiffs’ injuries could not be linked to the attorney general’s conduct because he had no duty to inform the legislature and governor that the act was unlawful. Although state law authorizes the attorney general to examine statutes for “clarity and constitutional validity,” it doesn’t require him to do so, the court said. In addition, the court noted that the attorney general didn’t prevent the city from implementing its ordinance. He didn’t file suit to implement its provisions or threaten to do so. The fact that the law doesn’t provide for enforcement by the attorney general confirms the injuries aren’t traceable to the attorney general, the court said.

Second, the plaintiffs failed to show that a ruling in their favor would redress their injuries. As remedies, they sought to have the act declared unconstitutional, require the attorney general to inform the legislature that the act is unconstitutional, and order the city to enforce the new minimum wage. The court found that none of this relief would significantly increase the likelihood that their employers would pay them the increase in wage established by the city. As a result, they lacked standing to pursue their equal protection claim.

Because the recent ruling turned on standing, the court never addressed the underlying claim that the state legislature’s leadership was racially motivated in blocking Birmingham’s minimum wage ordinance.

Key Takeaways for Employers

It is unknown at this point whether this matter will be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. For the time being, the hourly minimum wage for employees within the city of Birmingham remains at $7.25 an hour. However, employers that have workers within the city of Birmingham may want to continue to monitor this case and any legislative activity occurring as a result of this litigation. Eventually, the hourly minimum wage for employees within the city of Birmingham could rise pursuant to Ordinance 16-28, or the state legislature could take other efforts that increase the state minimum wage.