In the last week, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several labor and employment decisions. Yesterday, two important cases were decided, Harris v. Quinn and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby et al.
In Harris v. Quinn, the Court in a 5-4 decision held the First Amendment prohibits the collection of “agency fees” (union dues) from personal assistants in the Illinois rehabilitation program, who do not want to join or support the union. The Court distinguished the Harris case from its decision in Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., because the personal assistants in this case are different than full-fledged public employees. In Illinois, the state’s involvement with the personal assistants is limited to compensating them for their work. The personal assistants are hired, and their worked directed, by the “customers” who employ them, and they do not enjoy the rights or benefits of other state employees. They are not indemnified by the State for claims arising from actions taken during their employment. Because the Court determined Abood was not controlling, the Court applied First Amendment standards to determine if the agency fee provision served a “compelling state interest.” The Court held it did not.
One of the more controversial decisions of the Supreme Court this session is Burwell v. Hobby Lobby et. al. The issue before the Court was whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) permits the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to demand that three closely held corporations provide health insurance coverage for methods of birth-control, that violate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies owners. The three closely-held companies involved in the case are Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood Products, and Mardel. In a 5-4 decision, the Court determined the mandate to provide contraceptive care substantially burdened the exercise of religion.
HHS argued the owners of the companies forfeited all religious freedom when they organized their businesses as corporations, rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships. The business owners argued that if they comply with the mandate, they would be facilitating abortions, or if they refuse, they would face penalties as much as $1.3 million per day or $475 million per year. The Court ruled a “…Government action that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise must serve a compelling government interest…” and that it must constitute the least restrictive means of serving that interest, noting there were other ways in which Congress or HHS could ensure every woman has cost-free access to contraception. The Court cited a system developed for non-profit corporations such as that have religious objections to contraceptives. The decision of the Court is limited to closely-held companies, and did not address the first amendment arguments raised by the companies.
Finally, last week in N.L.R.B. v. Noel Canning, et al., the Court, after a significant historical analysis of how the Recess Appointments Clause (RAC) has been used, held three days was too short of a time to bring a “recess” within the scope of the RAC. As such, President Obama lacked authority to appoint three new members to the NLRB from January 3-6, 2012. The Court determined ‘in light of historical practice, a recess of more than three days but less than ten days is presumptively too short to fall within the Clause.’ The Court did indicate the use of the word “presumptively” leaves open the possibility an unusual circumstance could demand the exercise of the recess-appointment power during a shorter break.
This year the U.S. Supreme Court has now issued four decisions having impacts on workplaces. My law partner blogged about Sandifer et al. v. U.S. Steel Corp. earlier in the year.