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Employment Law Decisions May 15, 2016 to May 21, 2016 – Jeffrey S. Harris

Supreme Court of United States

Employer need not obtain favorable judgment on merits to be prevailing party, for award of attorneys' fees against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Disposition of EEOC's claims due to its failure to investigate and conciliate on behalf of 67 women before suing was sufficient for purpose of prevailing.  Lower courts must still decide whether employer obtained a preclusive judgment against EEOC and whether EEOC's position it satisfied pre-suit obligations was not frivolous, unreasonable or groundless.  CRST Van Expedited v. Equal Emp't Opportunity Comm'n, 2016 U.S. LEXIS 3350 (May 19, 2016).

Individual did not establish standing to sue consumer reporting agency for alleged violation of Fair Credit Reporting Act.  Alleged violation affected individual in a personal and individual way.  But the lower court failed to decide whether alleged violation entailed risk sufficiently concrete.  Violations of procedural requirements may cause no harm, where for example the consumer information reported is accurate or involves an incorrect zip code.  Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 2016 U.S. LEXIS 3046 (May 16, 2016).

United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Liberty Mutual Ins. Co. purchased Golden Eagle Ins. Co.  Former employees of Golden Eagle hired by Liberty Mutual claimed they were entitled to retirement benefits from Liberty Mutual's pension plan based on their past service with Golden Eagle.  Retirement plan administrator denied employees' claim for benefit accrual based on the past service.  District court correctly applied abuse of discretion standard to the administrator's decision, because employees did not offer material probative evidence he engaged in material and probative violations of ERISA's procedural requirements.  District court correctly decided administrator did not abuse his discretion by interpreting plan documents to deny employees past service credit, because his interpretation was reasonable.  District court incorrectly granted summary judgment against employees' claim they were equitably entitled to reformation or surcharge of the retirement plan to provide benefit accrual based on past service with Golden Eagle, on the ground Liberty Mutual breached its fiduciary duty by failing to inform them they would not be entitled to benefit accrual based on past service, when they could have left Golden Eagle before Liberty Mutual's purchase.   District court correctly certified class of former employees, because Liberty Mutual's alleged misrepresentations were uniform and class-wide, regardless of individual issues of reliance.  Requiring employees to prosecute separate actions could subject Liberty Mutual to incompatible standards of conduct.  Moyle v. Liberty Mutual Ret. Benefit Plan, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 9251 (9th Cir. May 20, 2016).

District court erred by vacating adjustment board's award binding employer to memorandum of understanding between union and association extending the term of a labor agreement before employer withdrew bargaining authority from association.  The award was grounded in board's reading of the agreement and past practice.  It did not violate public policy in favor of voluntary relationships among employers and multi-employer bargaining units.  Sw. Reg'l Council of Carpenters v. Drywall Dynamics, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 9205 (9th Cir. May 19, 2016).

District court did not err by granting summary judgment against age and race discrimination claim, because eliminating financial aid assistant's position in context of decision to cut staff salary budget by $1.55 billion was legitimate non-discriminatory reason, especially because tasks of her position were less essential to core functions of the financial aid department than those of other employees.  District court did not err granting summary judgment against interference with retirement benefits claim under ERISA, because even if plan was not exempt from ERISA, there was no evidence anyone at employer knew about increased pension payout when assistant's position was eliminated.  Viteri-Butler v. Univ. of Cal. Hastings Coll. of the Law, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 9080 (9th Cir. May 18, 2016).

District court did not err by granting directed verdict against trade secrets claim, because former employer did not show customer list included non public information providing former employee and new employer substantial business advantage.  Pollara v. Radiant Logistics, Inc., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 9015 (9th Cir. May 17, 2016).

United States District Court of the District of Hawaii

District court denied summary judgment against claim employer violated collective bargaining agreement, union breached its duty of fair representation and union was liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  There were genuine issues of material fact whether employer discharged the employee without proper cause, union's decision not to proceed with arbitration was inexplicable in light of its prior actions and statements and union's lies to employee about proceeding were outrageous.  Kirchhof v. Hawaii Government Employees Association, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66579 (D. Haw. May 20, 2016).

Supreme Court of Hawaii

Workers compensation law covered mental stress resulting from 'notice to improve performance'.  Notice was not discipline, because it did not punish employee by a reprimand, suspension or discharge.  Even if notice could be punishment, it did not comply with collective bargaining agreement by stating the employee could consult with the union.  Gao v. State of Hawaii Dept. of the Attorney General, 2016 Haw. LEXIS 119 (May 18, 2016).

Note: We analyze cases to learn rules the courts will follow or disappoint us if they don't. Rules that the courts follow allow us to behave and provide explanations they accept. But competent advocates may limit the rules to the facts of the case where they are discussed, or expand rules by showing that differences in other cases are irrelevant.