Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Supreme Court Gives Religious Employers a Big Defense in Discrimination Cases

Last week, the Supreme Court decided an employment discrimination case against a Lutheran school, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. The case involved a teacher who claimed she was fired in retaliation for asserting her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (The teacher, Cheryl Perich, had taken a leave of absence after being diagnosed with narcolepsy, and was asked to resign when she tried to return to work.) The school argued that it had to be free to choose the employees who acted in a ministerial role, and that its decision to fire Perich was therefore beyond the reach of the civil court system. The Supreme Court agreed, for the first time explicitly recognizing a “ministerial exception” to the ADA and other federal civil rights laws.

The parties agreed on the facts of the case. Perich was what the school refers to as a “called” teacher, which means she had completed a course of instruction on the Church’s beliefs and was asked to teach under the formal title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.” This position gave Perich certain advantages over the school’s lay teachers, including more job security and some tax breaks. Perich’s duties were largely the same as those of the lay teachers.

Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy and was out on disability leave at the start of the 2004-2005 school year. In January of 2005, she told the school she was ready to return soon; the school had already hired a lay teacher to replace her for the rest of the year. The congregation of the Church voted to give her a “peaceful release” from her call, by which it would pay a portion of her health insurance premiums if she resigned. Her response was not to peaceful: She refused to resign, told the school her doctor had released her to return to work on February 22, and showed up at the school on that day. She refused to leave until she was provided with a written acknowledgment that she had showed up. The school informed her that she would be fired, to which she responded that she had spoken to a lawyer and intended to assert her rights. She was fired and filed a lawsuit for retaliation under the ADA.

The Supreme Court found that Perich’s lawsuit was barred by the ministerial exception. Although lower courts had recognized this exception to federal laws prohibiting discrimination, this is the first time the Supreme Court has done so. Pursuant to this exception, grounded in the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, religious bodies must be free to decide who will “preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.” A discrimination lawsuit infringes that right by dictating whom the religious institution must hire or retain.

A couple of things interested me about this case. First of all, the Court refused to set clear guidelines on who qualifies as a “minister,” saying it was reluctant to adopt a “rigid formula” in its first case on the issue. The Court said that the facts in this case, including the effort required to be a called teacher, Perich’s use of the term for herself (and willingness to take advantage of the tax benefits), and her religious responsibilities, all added up to ministerial status. The concurring opinions took up this issue, with Justice Thomas proposing that courts should defer to the religious body’s good faith statement that someone is a minister. Justice Alito also wrote separately to emphasize that all religions should be entitled to this exception, not just those that have “ministers,” ordain certain members, or otherwise utilize the nomenclature and rites of the Protestant Church. This leaves a lot of leeway for future courts to decide how much analysis and probing is allowed of a religious institution’s assertion that a person qualifies as a minister under the exception.

Second, the school’s stated reason for firing Perich was that her threat to sue violated Lutheran doctrine that disputes should be resolved internally rather than through resort to the courts. But according to the facts, this threat came only after the school had told her she would be fired, so it’s hard to see how the internal dispute resolution process was still available to her. And, the Court’s unanimous opinion didn’t take up this part of the case at all. Essentially, the school is saying that this doctrinal belief essentially required it to retaliate against Perich, just as Catholic doctrine precluding ordination of women would require that Church to discriminate on the basis of sex. It’s not clear what evidence was presented to the lower courts based on the Court’s opinion, but it seems to me that religious employers relying on a defense this extreme should have to show that the belief is in fact held, and in good faith. For a court to analyze whether that belief is “valid” or correct in some ultimate sense would of course violate the First Amendment. But there should at least be some requirement that the belief is genuine and not a pretext for discrimination. A similar standard applies to employees who want a religious accommodation: Courts don’t examine the ultimate rectitude or logic of their beliefs, but do require that they be genuinely held and be religious in nature. To the extent religious organizations are claiming an exemption from laws so fundamental to our society, it seems they should be subjected to the same requirement. This wouldn’t give courts the right to say what a Church’s doctrine should be, but only what the Church’s doctrine actually is.

 

Wal-Mart Wins Class Action Case in Supreme Court

Yesterday, the Supreme Court gave employers a huge win in the case of Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes. The case was a class action lawsuit that alleged the giant retailer discriminated against female employees when making decisions on pay and promotions. There were three named plaintiff-employees, who sought to bring the lawsuit on behalf of more than a million female employees nationwide.

The Supreme Court wasn’t asked to rule on whether any employees had been discriminated against. Instead, the Court looked only at the class action issue: whether it was appropriate for the employees to bring these claims as a group. The Court concluded that it was not — and the ruling will likely result in fewer class actions over all kinds of issues, from civil rights cases to product liability claims.

The employees claimed that Wal-Mart engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against women by allowing its (mostly male) managers to exercise nearly unfettered discretion in making pay and promotion decisions, within a corporate culture that relied on gender-based stereotypes. The effect of this combination, the plaintiffs claimed, were significant disparities in pay and promotions to management between women and men. The employees presented anecdotal evidence from employees and statistical evidence of the disparities, in their effort to get a class action certified.

In a class action, a representative group brings a lawsuit on behalf of everyone who’s in the same position. The class action framework is intended to promote efficiency and fairness by allowing everyone’s claims to be decided at the same time, according to the same standards, rather than through a number of separate lawsuits that could result in contradictory outcomes. But to bring a class action, the plaintiffs have to meet certain requirements, intended to make sure that it’s fair both to other class members — whose rights will be determined by the lawsuit, even if they don’t participate — and to the defendant, who will have to defend against time-consuming and costly large-scale allegations.

The Supreme Court decided that the case couldn’t proceed as a class action because the plaintiffs hadn’t met one of these threshold requirements: that there be at least one common issue of law or fact among the class members (“commonality”). Because the women worked at stores across the 50 states, reporting to different managers, and bringing their own skills, performance history, and other attributes into play, the Court found that they didn’t have commonality. The Court was especially dismissive of the plaintiffs’ claim that allowing managers to make subjective, discretionary decisions could provide the necessary common ground for the class action.

Four Justices dissented from this part of the ruling. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the minority, identified the key common question for the class as “whether Wal-Mart’s discretionary pay and promotion policies are discriminatory.” In addition to reviewing the plaintiffs’ statistical and anecdotal evidence, she pointed to other facets of Wal-Mart’s nationwide practice, such as requiring that all employees promoted to management be willing to relocate and allowing managers to set pay within a two dollar range, which left room for the operation of gender bias.

The majority’s opinion in the Wal-Mart case is likely to have a significant impact on future class actions because it sets a stricter standard for getting these cases off the ground. As Justice Ginsburg points out, the commonality standard had previously been interpreted more leniently. The key question wasn’t whether there were dissimilarities among the class members, but whether there was at least one crucial similarity, a question that could be answered for the entire group. We’ll have to see what the ultimate effect of this case will be, as lower federal courts apply it going forward. For now, though, advocates for business groups and employees alike agree that it will limit the number and size of class actions in the future.