Monday, February 2, 2015
Early Labor and Employment Supreme Court Decisions
Last week, the Supreme Court decided two labor and employment cases. In one, M&G Polymers, a unanimous Supreme Court held that courts should apply ordinary contract principles when deciding whether health-care benefits survive the expiration of a collective-bargaining agreement. This holding reversed the Sixth Circuit's Yard-Man presumption that CBAs intend these benefits to vest for life. The Court remanded for the CBA to be interpreted by "ordinary contract principles," but ominously noted that "when a contract is silent as to the duration of retiree benefits, a court may not infer that the parties intended those benefits to vest for life." This stance seemed to be a primary motivation for a four-Justice concurrence (the more liberal Justices). The concurrence stressed that courts should be open to interpreting a CBA to intend vesting of retirees' health benefits, albeit without the Yard-Man "thumb on the scale." The impact of M&G Polymers will depend on how courts apply the decision, so we'll have to wait and see.
In the other decision, Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, the Court held (7-2, with Justices Sotomayor and Kennedy dissenting) that a TSA regulation did not eliminate whistleblower protection. At issue was a provision in the federal whistleblower statute that makes an exception for disclosures "specifically prohibited by law." In MacLean, the Court held that Congress intended this provision to apply to statutes, but not agency regulations (e.g., elsewhere in the statute, Congress used the phrase "law, rule, or regulation"). The dissenters largely agreed with the majority, but thought the exception was satisfied by the Homeland Security Act's mandate that the TSA prescribe regulations to prevent disclosure of certain information. This case is certainly a win for federal whistleblowers and will require Congress to be more proactive if it wants exceptions for certain whistleblower disclosures.