Friday, January 18, 2008

Dr. King's Birthday

We are closed Monday and will not be blogging Monday as we celebrate Dr. King's birthday.

My favorite quotation from Dr. King is: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The quote was actually first uttered by Theodore Parker, an American Transcendentalist, referring then to the abolitionist movement.

Last October the world lost one its great voices, who was clearly inspired, in part, by Dr. King. I refer to the South African reggae singer Lucky Dube. One of my favorite lyrics of his are from his song "Different Colours / One People." One refrain goes as follows:

They were created in the image of God
And who are you to separate them
Bible says, he made man in his image
But it didn't say black or white
Look at me you see BLACK
I look at you I see WHITE
Now is the time to kick that away
And join me in my song

The Psychology of Race in America

I am not a big fan of Bill Moyers, but his interview last Friday evening, January 11th, with Shelby Steele regarding the racial psycho-dynamics of the Obama campaign was spot on. The transcript is available at

Supreme Court Update

Today's conference

The Court granted cert. in MetLife v. Glenn, 06-923; 461 F.3d, 660 (3rd Cir. 2006).

The Solicitor General had filed an invitation-brief (available at in support of the petition for cert. in this case, which presents the recurring ERISA issue as to the standard of review that the trial court's should utilize in ERISA benefit cases when the plan administrator is the employer, and thus evaluates whether or not to pay claims out of its own pocket. The first question that the Solicitor recommended the Court grant cert. on is whether or not that constitutes a conflict of interest that must be considered in determining the standard of judicial review. The Solicitor also recommended to the Court that it order the parties to brief how the Courts should weigh such conflicts of interest in reviewing discretionary benefit determinations made by such a "dual-role administrator."

The courts have struggled with the delineation of a meaningful standard ever since Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989). As a commentator noted in the fall 2007 issue (vol. 37, no. 1) of The Brief, the publication of the Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section of the ABA, "This sliding scale approach is hopelessly imprecise . . . " See Teresa S. Renaker, "State Regulation of Discretionary Clauses In Insured ERISA Plans," The Brief, Fall 2007, page 51. Ms. Renaker's fascinating article called my attention to developments occurring at the state regulatory and state legislative levels regarding discretionary clauses, like the one at issue in MetLife. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners and several states have moved to disallow discretionary clauses in certain insurance policies. On December 5, 2004, NAIC voted unanimously to adopt model legislation banning the use of discretionary clauses in disability insurance policies. This model legislation amended the NAIC's Model Act 42 of 2002, which banned discretionary clauses in health insurance policies, expanding it to reach disability policies as well. The article points out that the Federal District Courts are now grappling with the effect in those states that have by regulation banned discretionary clauses, on the standard of review in ERISA cases like MetLife. Some courts have found discretionary clauses invalid, and have applied de novo review. Other courts have continued to apply discretionary review. And, some courts have held that the states do not have the authority to regulate in the area of discretionary clauses.So, if you represent a client in a benefit determination case, in addition to keeping your eye on MetLife, you need to determine what, if any, action the applicable state insurance commissioner has taken in light of NAIC's model legislation.

The Court also granted cert. in Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Lab., 06-1505; 461 F.3d 134 (2d Cir. 2006).

The Solicitor General had filed an invite-brief with the Court on December 21, 2007 (available at in Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Lab., No., recommending that the Court grant cert., limited to the issue of which party has the burden of persuasion in an ADEA disparate impact case to establish "reasonable factor other than age." The government's brief argues, in contrast to the Second Circuit's decision, that the burden should be upon the employer. The government's brief argues that the Court should not accept cert. on the second issue presented by the plaintiffs' petition which is whether an employer's practice of conferring broad, discretionary authority upon individual managers to decide which employees to lay off during a reduction in force constitutes a "reasonable factor other than age."If the Court accepts cert. in Meacham, this will be its second visit to the Supreme Court. When the Court issued its decision in Smith v. City of Jackson, 544 U.S. 228 (2005), holding that disparate impact claims are cognizable under the ADEA, the Court granted the petition for cert. in Meacham I (381 F.3d 61) and remanded it for reconsideration in light of Smith. 554 U.S. 957 (2005).On remand, the Second Circuit held that the employee had the burden of persuasion with respect to the "reasonableness" of the employer's proffered business justification under the ADEA disparate-impact framework. This holding was in agreement with the Tenth Circuit's opinion in Pippen v. Burlington Res. Oil & Gas Co., 440 F.3d 1186, 1200 (10th Cir. 2006). The Second Circuit also found that employment practices based on discretionary decisionmaking are generally immune from challenge under the ADEA, stating: "Any system that makes employment decisions in part on such subjective grounds as flexibility and critically may result in outcomes that disproportionately impact older workers; but at least to the extent that the decisions are made by managers who are in day-to-day supervisory relationships with their employees, such a system advances business objectives that will usually be reasonable."Judge Pooler dissented, holding that the RFOA creates an affirmative defense upon which the defendant bears the burden of persuasion.

The Court also granted cert. in Crawford v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson County, 06-1595; 211 Fed. Appx. 373, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 28280 (6th Cir. 2006) (petition for cert. available at

The 6th Circuit held that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII were not violated by the employer’s allegedly retaliatory discharge of plaintiff who had cooperated in the employer’s internal investigation of a co-worker’s sexual harassment allegations against a supervisor, where there was no pending charge with the EEOC.

AT&T Corp. v. Hulteen, 07-543; 498 F.3d 1001 (9th Cir. 2006)

The Court had this case on for decision at conference today whether to grant cert., and, as best I can determine, took no action today one way or the other. The issue in this case is whether Title VII permits an employer, when setting retirement benefits, to discriminate between who took pregnancy disability leave before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act came into effect and other employees who took any other kind of temporary disability leave during that same period.

January 11th Conference

Taylor v. Progress Energy, Inc., 493 F.3d 454 (4th Cir. 2007), re-aff’g 415 F.3d 364 (4th Cir. 2005, vacated and remanded by 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 15744 (4th Cir. June 14, 2006), petition for cert. filed on October 22, 2007, available at

The Fourth Circuit, on rehearing and now with the benefit of the amicus brief from the Department of Labor, which disagreed with the Court’s interpretation of a DOL regulation prohibiting waivers of FMLA claims, nonetheless reaffirmed its earlier ruling. Judge Duncan dissented. The Fourth Circuit, disagreeing with the Fifth Circuit’s holding in Faris v. Williams WPCI, Inc., 332 F.3d 316 (5th Cir. 2003), held DOL regulation that prohibits waivers of FMLA claims absent DOL or court approval should be upheld. The Fifth Circuit had held that the regulation only barred the prospective waiver of substantive FMLA rights; whereas the Fourth Circuit held that the regulation applied to all waivers, both retrospective and prospective. In addition, the Fourth Circuit held that the regulation applies to all FMLA rights, both substantive and proscriptive, the latter preventing discrimination and retaliation.

At the Court's January 11th conference, the Court had requested that the Solicitor General file an invitation-brief. Now, this should get real interest. The Solicitor of Labor filled an amicus brief at the Fourth Circuit when the petition for rehearing was filed, and the panel rejected the Department's interpretation of the statute. The Supreme Court, in Auer and Coke, deferred to the Department's interpretation as expressed in Supreme Court briefs. In Auer, the Department's interpretation was first expressed in the Supreme Court brief, and the Court genuflected to it. The Fourth Circuit in Progress Energy, did not genuflect. Should be interesting.

Engquist Redux

When the Supreme Court took Engquist the other day (, it passed on a fascinating second issue that the cert. petition presented, that is whether a state "split recovery" punitive damages statute violates the Takings Clause of the Constitution.

The supreme courts in six states have upheld the statutes against federal takings challenges. Cheatham v. Pohle, 789 NE 2d 467, 474075 (Ind. 2003); Evans v. State, 56 P.3d 1046, 1058 (Alaska 2002); Mack Trucks, Inc. v. Conkle, 263 Ga 539, 436, SE 2d 635, 639 (1993); Gordon v. State, 608 So 2d. 800, 801-02 (Fla. 1992) (per curiam); Shepherd Components, Inc. v. Brice Petrides-Donohue & Associates, 473 NW 2d 612, 619 (Iowa 1991). But two state supreme courts have held the statutes violate the federal Takings Clause. Kirk v. Denver Publishing Co. 818 P 2d 262, 273 (Colo. 1991); Smith v. Price Development Co., 125 P 3d 945 (Utah 2005). One U.S. District Court has held that a split recovery statute violates the Excessive Fines Clause. McBride v. Gen. Motors, Corp., 737 F. Supp 1563, 1578 (MD Ga. 1990).

Customer Preference

There is a recent customer preference case, Simple v. Walgreen's Co., 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 29729 (7th Cir., Nov. 14, 2007), where Walgreen's attempted to defend assignments to its stores based upon racial demographic data, attempting to justify the denial to an African American of a promotion to manage a store in Pontiac, Michigan because Pontiac was not ready to have a black manager. Judge Posner rejected this bit of nonsense out of hand.

Historically, the courts have been loathe to bless customer preference as a justification for employment practices based on a protected characteristic. See Diaz v. Pan Am. World Airways, 442 F.2d 385 (5th Cir. 1970); Gerdom v. Continental Airlines, Inc., 692 F.2d 602 (9th Cir. 1982); Fernandez v. Wynn Oil Co., 653 F.2d 1273 (9th Cir. 1981); 29 C.F.R. 1604.2(a)(1)(iii) (preferences of co-workers or customers are not a BFOQ).

Now, what's interesting is what is going on beneath the radar screen in the interaction between law firms and their clients. Increasingly, I hear reports of clients insisting that, if the law firm wants their business, the law firm must assign African Americans to work on the account. Why is this not as odious in the eyes of the law as Walgreen's saying that Pontiac is not ready for a black manager at its store there?

Background Checks

The Ninth Circuit in Nelson v. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 498 (9th Cir., Jan. 11, 2008), issued an opinion allowing scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to continue working until the question of their privacy challenge to the requirement of a new domestic security rule that they submit to background checks was decided.

Black Holes

Some can't sleep nights for fear that an asteroid or meteorite will collide with Earth during the night. Well, for those of you who comfortably sleep despite asteroid phobia and meteorite phobia, let me share with you the latest scientific discovery which undoubtedly will lead to more insomnia. Professor Kelly Holley-Bockelmann of Vanderbilt University has just presented at the American Astronomical Society's annual meeting about renegade black holes roaming the Milky Way. She says that there are breakaway black holes, that have broken away from that giant black hole that sits at the center of our galaxy, and they are, as best she can discern, indiscriminately roaming the Milky Way. They are, of course, invisible, although they do emit Hawking radition. So, any second now, we could be sucked in to a black hole, and no longer exist. The title alone of an article from the Australian News is disquieting -- "Hundreds of hungry black holes may me lurking in our milky way galaxy, waiting to gooble unsuspecting planets and stars that cross their paths." Night, night.

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