Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pro-corporate Supreme Court deals blow to Workers

Employment Discrimination:

When a supervisor illegally discriminates against an employee, the employer is responsible under federal law. But a 5-4 Court in Vance v. Ball State ignored how workplaces really work and severely constrained who counts as a supervisor in employment discrimination cases. This will make it much easier for companies to avoid liability when someone is discriminated against by an employee who directs their day-to-day activities and exercises control over their work conditions but doesn't technically have the power to take “tangible employment actions” against them (like hiring or firing them).

On the same day, the same five far-right Justices in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar made it much harder for employees to show that they were retaliated against for daring to complain about illegal discrimination. The fact that retaliation against complaints of race or sex discrimination is race or sex discrimination went out the window. The dissent accused the majority of being driven by their personal zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims filed against employers, in stark opposition to the intent of anti-discrimination statutes.

Letting Corporations Ignore Laws Designed to Impose Reasonable Limits on their Power:

In Mutual Pharmaceutical v. Bartlett, the 5-4 majority took another step in immunizing certain drug manufacturers from state lawsuits against their dangerous products. Left to suffer was Karen Bartlett, who took a generic drug that caused 2/3 of her skin to deteriorate, burn off, or become an open wound, while also making her nearly blind. The majority twisted logic to conclude that the generic drug manufacturer could not comply with both state and federal laws, so state laws got chucked. Justice Sotomayor's dissent accused the majority of imposing their own policy rather than applying the law.

In American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant, the same 5-4 majority gave large corporations a road map on how to force customers into agreeing to surrender rights they thought were protected by federal law. In this case, Amex used its monopoly power to force a local restaurant into an agreement to settle their disputes by one-on-one arbitration (not a lawsuit of any type, and not class-based arbitration), with terms that prevented it from ever being able to challenge the corporate giant's illegal exercise of monopoly power. The majority ignored precedent saying that courts should not enforce arbitration agreements that prevent parties from vindicating their federally protected statutory rights.

This trend extended even to human rights abuses in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. Victims of atrocities in Nigeria accused the oil giant of encouraging the Nigerian military to commit those atrocities, and they sued under the Alien Tort Statute. The Court unanimously concluded that American federal courts could not hear the claims of this particular set of plaintiffs. However, the five arch-conservatives set up a broad rule that makes it all the more difficult for such cases to be heard in the future.

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