Courting Disaster: Update 2001-2002

Consumer and Worker Protection

During this past Term, Justices Scalia and Thomas provided the decisive votes in two narrowly divided rulings favorable to employers. In Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc., 122 S.Ct. 1155 (2002), a 5-4 Court, with Thomas and Scalia joining the majority, invalidated a Labor Department regulation concerning implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles employees to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a one-year period for the family and medical-leave purposes specified in the Act. The regulation required an employer to give an employee individualized written notice that a particular absence would be considered leave under the FMLA. If such notice were not given, the leave would not count against the employee’s FMLA entitlement to 12 weeks of leave, with the result that, as a penalty for noncompliance, the employer could be required to give an employee additional leave beyond the amount provided in the Act. The Court majority did not believe that the Secretary of Labor had the authority to require employers to give employees more than the 12 weeks of leave specified in the Act. The Court therefore held that the regulation was contrary to the Act and outside the Secretary’s authority. The dissenting Justices discussed the importance of individualized notice to employees that particular leave is protected under the FMLA, would have held that the Secretary of Labor had the authority to require employers to provide such individualized notice, and concluded that nothing in the Act “constrains the Secretary’s ability to secure compliance with that requirement by refusing to count the leave against the employer’s statutory obligation . . ..”

The Court’s ruling in Barnhart v. Sigmon Coal Co., Inc., 122 S.Ct. 941 (2002), concerned federal legislation intended to protect health care benefits for retired coal industry workers, the Coal Industry Retiree Health Benefit Act of 1992 (the Coal Act). In this case, the Court held, 6-3, that the Coal Act does not permit the Commissioner of Social Security to assign liability for retired coal miners’ health care benefits to a company that is the successor-in-interest to the business of another coal operator. Justice Scalia joined the majority opinion, which was written by Justice Thomas. The dissenting Justices decried the “absurd results” of the majority’s opinion, contending that it was an illogical interpretation of the Coal Act and contrary to the intent of Congress.

Justices Scalia and Thomas were on opposite sides of the Court’s ruling in Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services v. Blumer, 122 S.Ct. 962 (2002), in which the Court considered whether a state’s Medicaid eligibility rules conflicted with the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act, a federal law that seeks to prevent an individual from becoming impoverished when his or her spouse requires institutionalization for health reasons. The Court’s 6-3 decision upheld a methodology used by Wisconsin – and most states – to determine Medicaid eligibility that tends to have the effect of forcing married couples to spend down more of their savings in order for the institutionalized spouse to be eligible for benefits than the methodology employed by other states. The dissent would have held Wisconsin’s methodology to be invalid under the Act. While Justice Thomas joined the majority in Blumer, Justice Scalia dissented.

In a unanimous decision, Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker, 122 S.Ct. 1230 (2002), the Court held that, pursuant to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, a local public housing authority could lawfully evict a tenant when a member of the household or a guest engages in drug-related activity, regardless of whether the tenant knew, or should have known, about the activity. The decision was criticized by some observers as unfairly harmful to innocent low-income tenants.

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