Monday, November 11, 2013

Construing Words: The Meaning of “Clothes”

If you are looking for an example of a dispute over the meaning of a word in a statute or contract, a current Supreme Court case may prove helpful. The word at issue is “clothes.” Here are the opening
paragraphs of an account
of the Supreme Court argument, provided on the SCOTUS blog by  rofessor Sam Bagenstos.

In Monday’s argument in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation,
counsel for both the employee-plaintiffs and the employer-defendant offered the
Court tests for defining what constitutes “changing clothes,” but neither
seemed to get much traction.  To the extent that a majority of Justices
seemed inclined toward any definition, they seemed to favor following the
ordinary-language definition of “clothes” and resolving this case on behalf of
the employer.  Such a ruling would largely track the position taken by the
federal government in its brief and argument in this case.

The case involves a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that allows an
employer and a union to negotiate collective bargaining agreements under which
time spent “changing clothes” will not count towards the statute’s overtime
provisions.  The employees’ lawyer, Eric Schnapper, and U.S. Steel’s
lawyer, Lawrence DiNardo, pressed opposing categorical interpretations of the
key statutory phrase.  But the Justices appeared to see significant
problems with each of those interpretations.


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