Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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In 2010-2016, Valdivia worked for the District and received excellent performance evaluations. In 2016, she began reporting to Sisi. Valdivia began experiencing insomnia, weight loss, uncontrollable crying, racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, and exhaustion. Valdivia went into work late and left work early because she could not control her crying. She told Sisi about her symptoms and asked for a 10‐month position, instead of her 12‐month job. Sisi declined. After a third conversation, Sisi told Valdivia that she needed to decide whether she was staying. Valdivia sought out Sisi several more times and eventually submitted her resignation. Valdivia immediately regretted her decision and went to Sisi’s home, crying and asking to rescind her resignation. Sisi denied that request. Valdivia's physician noted depression. The next day, Valdivia began her new job; she was able to work for only four days before quitting. She was hospitalized and treated for anxiety and severe major depressive disorder. A psychiatrist later testified that it would be “difficult for anybody to work” with her symptoms. She sued under the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. 2601−2654, claiming that the District interfered with her rights by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job‐protected leave. A jury awarded her $12,000 in damages. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of the District’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. The District has not met the high bar to set aside a jury verdict. The District had notice of Valdivia’s problem through her conduct and direct reports. View "Valdivia v. Township High School District 214" on Justia Law

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McCurry worked at an Illinois warehouse owned by Mars, the candy maker, and operated by Kenco, a management firm. In 2015 Kenco lost its contract with Mars and laid off its Mars employees, including McCurry. A year later, she filed two “rambling” pro se complaints accusing Kenco, Mars, and several of her supervisors of discriminating against her based on her race, sex, age, and disability and claiming that Kenco and Mars conspired to violate her civil rights. The district court dismissed some of the claims. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the rest. McCurry’s response violated Local Rule 7.1(D)(2)(b)(6), under which the failure to properly respond to a numbered fact in an opponent’s statement of facts “will be deemed an admission of the fact.” Where McCurry did respond, she frequently simply stated that she “objected” to the statement without stating a basis for her objection. The judge accepted the defendants’ factual submissions as admitted and entered judgment in their favor. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. McCurry did not challenge the judge’s decision to enforce the local summary-judgment rule. As a result, the uncontested record contains no evidence to support a viable discrimination or conspiracy claim. The court called the appeal “utterly frivolous and McCurry’s monstrosity of an appellate brief” incoherent, and ordered her appellate lawyer to show cause why he should not be sanctioned or otherwise disciplined. View "McCurry v. Kenco Logistic Services, LLC" on Justia Law

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Mooney, an Illinois public-school teacher, is not a member of IEA, the union that serves as the exclusive representative of her employee unit in collective bargaining with the school district. The District deducted from her paycheck and sent to the union a fair-share fee that contributed to the costs incurred by the union. The Illinois Public Relations Act and 1977 Supreme Court precedent, Abood, authorized the arrangement. In its 2018 Janus decision, the Supreme Court overruled Abood, holding that compulsory fair share fee arrangements violate the First Amendment rights of persons who would prefer not to associate with the union. State employers in Illinois ceased deducting fair-share fees from the paychecks of nonmembers of public-sector unions. Mooney filed a putative class action (42 U.S.C. 1983) for the fees that had previously been deducted from her pay. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Mooney’s claims, joining the consensus across the country. Unions that collected fair-share fees prior to Janus, in accordance with state law and Abood, are entitled to assert a good-faith defense to section 1983 liability. The court rejected Mooney’s argument that she was not seeking damages and that an equitable demand for restitution cannot be defeated on good-faith grounds. The gravamen of Mooney’s complaint is that her First Amendment rights were violated by the fair-share requirement; her claim lies in law rather than equity. View "Mooney v. Illinois Education Association" on Justia Law

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Janus was employed by an Illinois agency. A collective bargaining agreement designated AFSCME as the exclusive representative of Janus’s employee unit. Janus exercised his right not to join the union. He objected to withholding $44.58 from his paycheck each month to compensate AFSCME. The Illinois Public Labor Relations Act established an exclusive representation scheme and authorized collective bargaining agreements that included a fair‐share fee provision to compensate the union for costs incurred in collective bargaining and representing employees, including non-members. Lower courts rejected Janus’s argument that the Supreme Court’s 1977 Abood decision, which upheld “fair share” schemes was wrongly decided. The Supreme Court overruled Abood in 2018, holding that requiring nonmembers to pay fair‐share fees and “subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern” violated the First Amendment. The Seventh Circuit subsequently rejected Janus’s 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim for damages equivalent to the fair share fees he had paid. The case presented a First Amendment issue, not one under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. The Court’s analysis focused on whether requiring a union to continue to represent those who do not pay a fair‐share fee would be sufficiently inequitable to establish a compelling interest, not whether requiring nonmembers to contribute to the unions would be inequitable. Nor did the Court hold that Janus has an unqualified constitutional right to accept the benefits of union representation without paying. Its focus was on freedom of expression. The Court also did not specify whether its decision should apply retroactively. The statute on which defendants relied was considered constitutional for 41 years. View "Janus v. American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees" on Justia Law

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Shell began working at Chicago’s Corwith Rail Yard in 1977. By 2010, BSNF owned Corwith Yard; Shell worked for BNSF's contractor. BNSF assumed the railyard’s operations itself, terminating the employment of those who worked for the contractor. BNSF invited those employees to apply for new positions. Shell applied to work as an intermodal equipment operator, a “safety-sensitive” position, which required the employee to climb on railcars to insert and remove locking devices, drive trucks that move trailers, and operate cranes to load and unload containers. BNSF extended a conditional offer of employment, requiring that Shell pass a medical evaluation. Shell had a body-mass index of 47.5. BNSF does not hire applicants for safety-sensitive positions if their BMI is 40 or greater (class III obesity). BNSF believes that someone with class III obesity could unexpectedly experience a debilitating health episode and lose consciousness while operating dangerous equipment. BNSF informed Shell of his disqualification but told him that his application could be reconsidered if he lost at least 10% of his weight and maintained the weight loss for at least six months. Shell sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court denied BNSF’s motion for summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit reversed. With only proof that BNSF refused to hire him because of a fear that he would develop an impairment, Shell has not established that BNSF regarded him as having a disability or that he is otherwise disabled. View "Shell v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co." on Justia Law

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The Union and the NECA Electrical Contractors Association entered into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) providing health, welfare, and pension benefits for union workers. The Funds operate as trusts for these benefits. Employers, who are members of NECA, self-report the benefits they owe. Veterans Electric participated in NECA, assented to the CBA, and contributed to the Funds for its union employees. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. 1132(g), governs benefit plans between labor unions and multiemployer associations. The Funds attempted to audit Veterans’ payroll records. Veterans only provided records for union employees, which accounted for about half of the total reported wages. The Funds requested payroll information for non-union employees. Veterans refused, contending that the records were outside the scope of a proper audit under the CBA. The Funds filed suit. During discovery, Veterans provided the additional payroll information. The district court granted Veterans summary judgment, limiting the scope of the trustees’ audit authority. The Seventh Circuit reversed. Under the CBA, the trustees’ authority to audit payroll records includes “all employees regardless of membership or non-membership in the Union.” In light of the ERISA fiduciary duties imposed on union trustees and the authority under the Trust Agreements, the Funds had the right to conduct random audits on employer payroll records. View "Electrical Construction Industry Prefunding Credit Reimbursement Program v. Veterans Electric, LLC" on Justia Law

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Daza worked for the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) as a geologist for 23 years. In 2011, Daza expressed concerns that another employee was denied promotion because of his political affiliation. In 2013, Daza complained about a commissioner’s misuse of political office. About a month later Daza received his first reprimand, for refusing to answer calls after hours. In 2014, he again complained about the treatment of another employee. A supervisor complained about Daza’s “professionalism.” Daza had multiple disagreements with supervisors and was ultimately terminated “because his behavior consistently defied INDOT culture and expectations.” Daza filed suit, alleging that his firing was unlawful. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants, rejecting claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 that alleged violation of Daza’s First Amendment rights by discriminating and retaliating against him for his political activities and affiliation. Daza presented a long string of facts occurring over four years but presented no evidence that his alleged political activities or affiliation motivated his firing. The evidence actually shows that management had taken issue with Daza’s conduct for years, and the decision to fire him was made after his offensive comments during a training session. View "Daza v. Indiana" on Justia Law

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School Superintendent Reichhart granted an adult student permission to possess cigarettes on school grounds. Ulrey, the assistant principal, disagreed with that decision. Without approaching Reichhart first, Ulrey called the president of the school board, who emailed Reichhart to express concern about his decision. Reichhart rebuked Ulrey for going over his head, threatening to reprimand her formally. She apologized. Three months later, she resigned during a meeting with Reichhart. Ulrey filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against Reichhart and the school board, claiming that Reichhart violated her First Amendment rights by retaliating for her speech about a student discipline issue and that the defendants coerced her to resign, depriving her of her property interest in her job without due process of law. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Ulrey spoke about the discipline issue in her capacity as an employee, so the First Amendment did not protect her speech. Ulrey failed to present sufficient evidence sufficient that her resignation was involuntary. The test is not whether the employee was happy about resigning or even whether the employer asked for the resignation. Ulrey offered to resign because Reichhart’s “vibes” and “physical demeanor” communicated his desire to fire her. That is not enough to treat the defendants as if they had denied her the extensive procedural protections available if she had wanted to contest a possible termination. View "Ulrey v. Reichhart" on Justia Law

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The Railroad sent Abernathy and Probus to repair a railroad crossing, which required them to transport ties several miles. The Railroad had a “tie crane,” which runs on the railroad tracks but it had been inoperable for years. The employees had two options: a backhoe or a pickup truck, traveling on public roads. Abernathy drove the backhoe. Probus drove the pickup, with the tools. Two ties fell out of the backhoe’s bucket. Abernathy stopped to lift the ties back into the bucket, injuring his back and smashing a finger. Despite the accident, the men finished the job. The following morning, Abernathy reported the injury. Abernathy worked through the pain on lighter duty for a year but was unable to return to his regular work. The Railroad terminated his employment. He had physical therapy, epidural injections, and surgery but continued to experience pain. At the time of trial, his surgeon had not cleared him for any type of work. Abernathy sued under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C 51. A jury found that Abernathy was 30 percent at fault and awarded a net amount, $525,000. The court awarded Abernathy prevailing party costs but declined to award witness fees above the statutory amount. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The jury could reasonably find that the Railroad did not provide Abernathy with appropriate equipment and that his working environment was not reasonably safe; a reasonable person in the Railroad’s position could have foreseen that transporting ties in a backhoe or pickup could lead to injury. There was sufficient evidence that the Railroad’s negligence played a part in causing Abernathy’s injury. View "Abernathy v. Eastern Illinois Railroad Co." on Justia Law

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Progress Rail, a manufacturer, has Shop Rules; violations result in “disciplinary action ranging from reprimand to immediate discharge.” Progress hired McDaniel in 2005 as a Material Handler. In 2016, McDaniel complained that Howard, his supervisor, was giving overtime to younger workers. Shortly thereafter Howard issued McDaniel a disciplinary notice for using his cell phone while on work equipment in violation of Shop Rules. McDaniel denied talking on his phone but admitted that it was “on top of the truck” in violation of a Rule. McDaniel received a one-day suspension. Weeks later, Howard claimed McDaniel was using his cell phone to take pictures. McDaniel volunteered his phone to confirm he did not take any photographs. There was no discipline. McDaniel alleges that Howard then assigned him to sweeping and general maintenance duties for three weeks. Months later, McDaniel suffered a serious injury while attempting to move a 106-pound piece of machinery by hand. After investigatory interviews, with a Union Representative in attendance, McDaniel, age 55, was terminated. After filing an EEOC complaint, McDaniel sued, alleging discrimination on the basis of age and retaliation for complaining about a superior, citing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. 621–34. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Progress. McDaniel has not supplied evidence of any similarly situated employee that would allow a fact-finder to determine whether any adverse employment action was the result of age discrimination or retaliation. View "McDaniel v. Progress Rail Locomotive, Inc." on Justia Law