On January 31, 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to fill the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court left open by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in early 2015. Many employers are wondering what impact a potential Justice Gorsuch would have on employment law decisions, and the news is generally positive. Judge Gorsuch, during his time on the Tenth Circuit, has issued decisions that have gone in favor of both employers and employees. However, he favors a straight forward application of facts to the law to reach conclusions and has been critical of administrative agencies overstepping their authority.
Judge Gorsuch, in line with holdings from the Seventh Circuit, has been critical of the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework that is frequently used in employment discrimination cases. Judge Gorsuch favors focusing on the real question – whether discrimination actually took place – instead of focusing on whether a prima facie case can be established. This straight-forward approach to the facts will likely be welcomed by employers who want to avoid getting bogged down in technicalities.
As we have covered multiple times, in recent years, administrative agencies such as the EEOC, OSHA, and particularly the NLRB have expanded the scope and reach of the employment laws they oversee by broadly interpreting existing laws, often to the confusion and detriment of employers. This expansion could be significantly curbed by a U.S. Supreme Court conservative majority anchored by Judge Gorsuch. In particular, Judge Gorsuch has issued opinions limiting the judicial deference that should be given to administrative agencies and stating that lawmaking should be left to Congress. For example, in his dissent in Trans Am Trucking Inc. v. Administrative Review Board, U.S. Department of Labor, Judge Gorsuch penned a dissent that stated that nothing in the Surface Transportation Assistance Act stated that an employee could operate a vehicle in a way the employer forbid and that the DOL did not have the authority to expand the law to say so. He also opined in a case involving the NLRB that the agency did not provide a persuasive explanation to reverse its long-standing precedent that interim earnings should be deducted from back pay awards and, therefore, should not be allowed to change its policy.
Finally, Judge Gorsuch has issued opinions favorable to arbitration agreements, which is of particular interest to employers as the Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases regarding whether the NLRB is correct in its interpretation that arbitration agreements that bar workers from pursuing class actions are illegal restraints of employees’ Section 7 rights. If confirmed, Judge Gorsuch may be able to weigh-in on this important issue as the U.S. Supreme Court, yesterday, indicated that it will not address this issue during the Court’s current term, but will address it next term. Hopefully, by that time Judge Gorsuch will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. As a result, then Justice Gorsuch could be the deciding vote on this important issue.
Although Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation process is likely to be long and contentious, a Justice Gorsuch anchored U.S. Supreme Court can be something that employers can look forward to in providing common sense to employment laws.