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

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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Burciaga lost his job and filed for bankruptcy a week later. On the date the bankruptcy proceeding began, Burciaga’s former employer owed him approximately $24,000 for unused vacation time. Illinois treats vacation pay as a form of wages. Exemptions for debtors in Illinois rest on state law, 11 U.S.C. 522(b)(2). Burciaga asked the district court to treat 85% of the vacation pay as exempt from creditors’ claims. Illinois permits creditors to reach 15% of unpaid wages but forbids debt collection from the rest. The Chapter 7 Trustee, objected. The bankruptcy judge and district court sided with the Trustee. The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding nothing ambiguous about Illinois law or section 522(b)(2) and (3)(A); 85% of unpaid wages are exempt from creditors’ claims in Illinois, and vacation pay is a form of wages. View "Burciaga v. Moglia" on Justia Law

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Sergeant Mueller took a leave of absence from the Joliet Police Department to report for active duty in the Illinois National Guard Counterdrug Task Force. The Department placed him on unpaid leave, Mueller resigned from his National Guard position and sued the city and his supervisors for employment discrimination, citing the Uniformed Service Members Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which prohibits discrimination against those in “service in a uniformed service.” The district court dismissed, finding that National Guard counterdrug duty was authorized under Illinois law and not covered by USERRA. The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that “service in the uniformed services” explicitly covers full-time National Guard duty, including counterdrug activities, 38 U.S.C. 4303(13). USERRA does not limit protection to those in “Federal service” like the Army or Navy but to those in “service in a uniformed service,” which explicitly includes Title 32 full-time National Guard duty. The Posse Comitatus Act likewise only bars the Army and Air Force from domestic law enforcement, but does not apply to Title 32 National Guard duty, 18 U.S.C. 1385. View "Mueller v. City of Joliet" on Justia Law

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Stegall applied and interviewed for a Social Security Administration (SSA) service representative position in 2010. Stegall claims she received an offer of employment at the end of her interview. Stegall subsequently disclosed her physical and mental disabilities, which she claims prompted the SSA to rescind the offer. The SSA denied offering Stegall a position, stating it never extends offers of employment during interviews, and that it deemed Stegall not motivated for public service due to her answers in the interview. Stegall claimed discrimination based on race and her mental and physical disabilities. The SSA denied Stegall’s claim. She appealed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and filed suit. Before trial, Stegall dismissed her race and mental disability discrimination claims. A jury found that Stegall had a disability, that the SSA regarded her as having a disability, and that the SSA failed to hire Stegall, but that even without her physical disability, Stegall would not have been hired. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the verdict went against the manifest weight of the evidence and that the court abused its discretion in admitting evidence relating to subsequent contradictory statements about her disability and evidence that SSA ultimately hired a candidate with a disability. View "Stegall v. Saul" on Justia Law

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Harnishfeger published a book under a pseudonym, Conversations with Monsters: Chilling, Depraved and Deviant Phone Sex Conversations, concerning her time as a phone‐sex operator. A month later, Harnishfeger began a one‐year stint with the Indiana Army National Guard as a member of the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, a federal anti-poverty program administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). When Harnishfeger’s National Guard supervisor discovered Conversations and identified Harnishfeger as its author, she demanded that CNCS remove Harnishfeger. CNCS complied and ultimately cut her from the program. Harnishfeger filed suit alleging First Amendment and Administrative Procedure Act violations. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit reversed in part and affirmed in part. The book is protected speech; it was written and published before Harnishfeger began her VISTA service. Its content is unrelated to CNCS, VISTA, and the Guard. It was written for a general audience, concerning personal experiences and is a matter of public concern. A jury could find that Harnishfeger’s National Guard supervisor infringed her free-speech rights by removing her from her placement because of it. The supervisor’s actions were under color of state law, so 42 U.S.C. 1983 offers a remedy, and she was not entitled to qualified immunity. There is no basis, however, for holding CNCS or its employees liable. Harnishfeger failed to show a triable issue on any federal defendant’s personal participation in a constitutional violation. View "Harnishfeger v. United States" on Justia Law

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Signode assumed an obligation to pay health-care benefits to a group of retired steelworkers and their families. Signode then exercised its right to terminate the underlying benefits agreement and also stopped providing the promised benefits to the retired steelworkers and their families, despite contractual language providing that benefits would not be “terminated … notwithstanding the expiration” of the underlying agreement. The retirees and the union filed suit under the Labor-Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. 185, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(1)(B). The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s entry of a permanent injunction, ordering Signode to reinstate the benefits. The agreement provided for vested benefits that would survive the agreement’s termination. While there is no longer a presumption in favor of lifetime vesting, the court applied ordinary contract law interpretation rules and concluded that the agreement unambiguously provided retirees with vested lifetime health-care benefits. Even if the agreement were ambiguous, industry usage and the behavior of the parties here provide enough evidence to support vesting such that resolution of any ambiguity in favor of the plaintiffs as a matter of law would still be correct. View "Stone v. Signode Industrial Group LLC" on Justia Law

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Ford had worked as a Deputy Sheriff for several years when another driver crashed into her patrol vehicle, severely injuring Ford’s dominant right hand. She has not regained use of her hand and suffers sometimes-debilitating pain. The Sheriff’s Office placed Ford on light-duty tasks for a year. Ford physically could not resume her work as a deputy and was purportedly told that she could either accept a civilian position with a pay cut, resign, or be fired. Ford requested Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. 12101 accommodations: a hands-free telephone, voice-activated software, an ergonomic work station, the ability to take breaks when needed for pain, and training for her supervisors. Each request, except the voice-activated software, was granted. Ford accepted a civilian position. Ford alleges that she then suffered three years of disability harassment. The Office transferred two workers, of whom Ford complained. Ford had multiple complaints about other co-workers. The Office switched Ford from a fixed to a rotating schedule. Ford unsuccessfully requested to be returned to a fixed schedule, saying that the rotating schedule exacerbated her complex regional pain syndrome, attaching a physician’s note to that effect. Ford unsuccessfully applied four times to be transferred or promoted before she secured a transfer to the violent-offender registry, where she continues to work. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the rejection of most of Ford’s discrimination claims on summary judgment. A district court may properly separate claims based on specific adverse employment actions, retaliation, denial of reasonable accommodation, and hostile work environment. On her demotion claim, Ford failed to present evidence that some vacant job existed closer to her original job, rendering the visitation clerk demotion unreasonable. There were no material disputes of fact as to the promotion decisions. View "Ford v. Marion County Sheriff's Office" on Justia 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