ACSBlog

  • July 1, 2015
    BookTalk
    Under the Bus
    How Working Women Are Being Run Over
    By: 
    Caroline Fredrickson

    by Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society for Law & Policy

    When she was 18, my great-grandmother Mathilda Olafsson left Sweden to escape poverty, sailing alone in steerage to Boston where she was lucky to find a job as a maid. Like countless immigrant women, Mathilda was subject to sexual harassment, underpayment, and abusively long hours. As she endured backbreaking labor and meals consisting of her employers’ scraps, she hoarded her meager earnings, working toward a better life.

    Growing up, I found Mathilda’s story ‒ so far in the past, so different from today ‒ inspirational. But sadly, even after the enactment of various labor laws and worker protections, many working women are still enduring the abuses that my great-grandmother suffered. The truth is, domestic workers and workers in other undervalued, female-dominated professions have little more legal protection than Mathilda and her peers had.

    Americans tend to think working conditions aren't so bad today; the U.S. has prohibited discrimination against women, mandated equal pay for equal work, and adopted family leave legislation. But few Americans know that the progressive laws designed to improve wages and working conditions left out large portions of the working population. That’s because during the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt struck bargains with “Dixiecrats,” trading the rights of African American and female workers for votes in support of a minimum wage, overtime, and the right to join a union.

    As a result, certain workers – including nannies, housekeepers, farmworkers, small business employees, part-time workers, independent contractors, and temporary workers – have almost zero protection under U.S. law. Not coincidentally, these workers are disproportionately female and people of color.

  • July 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Ann C. Hodges, Professor of Law, University of Richmond

    The recent decision by a California labor commissioner that an Uber driver is an employee rather than an independent contractor is of limited significance in and of itself. What it may signal for the future of the sharing or gig economy is far more interesting.

    The decision is based on California law and, unless reversed on appeal, will require Uber to pay the driver several thousand dollars in business expenses. Determining whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor is a complex decision based on a multi-factor test. Most employment statutes exclude independent contractors from their coverage, based on the theory that contractors are independent business owners that do not need the legal protection. In recent years, however, misclassification of employees as contractors has become a common practice. In some cases, misclassification may be mere error, but in others it is an attempt to evade employment laws, avoid deducting and remitting income taxes and escape payment of the employer portion of social security. Other advantages to the employer of the independent contractor classification are reducing the potential liability for any negligent or wrongful actions of the individual and avoiding payment of employee benefits.

    The IRS is attuned to the issue and watching for misclassification, along with enforcement agencies for employment statutes and plaintiffs’ employment lawyers.  Enforcement resources are limited, however, so misclassification remains rampant. While all courts and agencies use similar multi-factor tests, differences in emphasis and weighting of factors result in different conclusions about similar workers.  For example, in a series of cases about FedEx drivers under a variety of employment laws, some courts and agencies have found them to be employees and others, contractors.  Some decision makers emphasize the amount of control exercised by the business while others put more weight on the availability of individual entrepreneurial opportunities.

    The recent Uber decision is similar, emphasizing Uber’s control over many aspects of the drivers’ jobs. But this is just the application of one state statute, which is more employee protective than many, by one decision maker to one employee.  If more decisions find drivers to be employees under more statutes, however, the business model that supports the gig economy may be threatened.

    The more interesting issue that the decision raises is the relationship between the gig economy and existing law.  Depending on the details of the business model, workers in the gig economy might be considered independent contractors, part-time employees, temporary employees, or casual workers.  Many laws exclude some or all of these groups of workers.   If this becomes the dominant work pattern of the future, laws will need to be changed to protect workers against exploitation by businesses.

  • July 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Justin Pidot, Associate Professor of Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law

    In its last decision of the 2014 term, the Supreme Court decided Michigan v. EPA, ruling that EPA must consider costs before deciding to regulate toxic air pollutants from power plants.  Lisa Heinzerling has identified the many questions that remain open in the wake of the Court’s decision.  And Dan Farber and Ann Carlson also provide insightful commentary on the meaning of the decision. As all three suggest, the lasting practical effect of the Court’s decision on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants remains to be seen.

    Without retreading ground that has been well-covered already, I want to offer two observations.  First, I want to offer some (very cautious) optimism that the legal rule provided by the Michigan v. EPA decision has little effect.  Read broadly, the decision could require agencies in many contexts to consider costs before regulating.  I’m not convinced, however, that the decision necessarily tells us anything about when agencies must consider costs. 

    The Court offers several reasons that EPA unreasonably interpreted its authority to regulate power plants without accounting for the billions of dollars of costs such regulation might impose: 

    First, the Court explains that the toxic air pollution provisions of § 112 of the Clean Air Act differentiate between power plants and other stationary sources.  For sources other than power plants, the Act essentially allows EPA to consider, at most, health and environmental effects.  In contrast, the Act requires EPA to regulate power plants only if “necessary and appropriate.”  This contrast, the Court offers, must mean something.

    Second, the Court opines that appropriate regulation generally requires an agency to think about both the benefits of regulation and its cots.  This suggests, that could be read to presumptively require agencies to consider costs in making regulatory decisions. 

  • July 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Professor of Law at the University of Virginia, and Lee KovarskyProfessor of Law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

    *This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

    Monday, the Supreme Court Justices delivered their oral opinion summaries in the Term's high-profile death penalty decision, Glossip v. Gross. Rather than reading from his concurring opinion or from a prepared statement, Justice Antonin Scalia -- still frazzled from release of the same-sex marriage cases -- appeared to be improvising. He accused Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of expressing personal "policy preferences," and added that the "two justices are willing to kill the death penalty outright rather than just pecking it to death." Why the defensiveness and outrage?

    Glossip was a 5-4 victory for death penalty states, which retained leeway to use new and untested lethal-injection "cocktails." Scalia was part of the majority but he sounded strangely like he was uttering last words. Justice Samuel Alito's presentation of the majority opinion was also unusually defensive and hostile to the dissenters. Justice Alito insists it is "settled that the death penalty is constitutional." In a career-defining dissent, Justice Breyer showed just how unsettled the American death penalty remains.

    The precise legal question in Glossip was whether states could use midazolam as the anesthetic in a three-drug legal-injection cocktail. For years, states used sodium thiopental, until suppliers stopped selling it for use in executions. Many states turned to pentobarbital, which also became difficult to obtain. Oklahoma turned to midazolam, considered more of an anti-anxiety medication than an anesthetic. After several "botched" executions, the Supreme Court agreed to hear whether improvements to Oklahoma's cocktail -- including a 400 percent increase the midazolam dosage -- satisfied the Eighth Amendment. Holding that it did, the Court seemed to announce a rule that an execution could not be Cruel and Unusual under the Eighth Amendment unless there is a "known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain." Justice Sotomayor dissented, calling this a "surreal" endorsement of inhumane "human experimentation."

    Justice Breyer did more. Joined by Justice Ginsburg, he wrote a dissent arguing that the death penalty is flat out unconstitutional, and he characteristically loaded his opinion with empirical data. In doing so, Breyer and Ginsburg joined the ranks of predecessors such as John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun who, in their later years on the Court, declared they no longer believed that there exists a constitutional way to administer capital sentences. In 1994, an 85 year-old Blackmun penned a memorable single-Justice dissent swearing off his participation in capital process: "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." For Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, the death penalty cannot escape a dilemma's horns -- the procedural protections necessary to make the penalty reliable mean that the process takes so long that it no longer serves its retributive or deterrent purposes.

  • July 1, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    Chris Weller writes at Business Insider about comments by Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler explaining how pride for the Confederate flag is “to be proud of a legacy of terrorism and violence.”

    At Slate, Leon Neyfakh considers whether bail, which allows the wealthy to walk free while the poor wait in jail, is unconstitutional.

    Marci Hamilton discusses at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights how the decision in Obergefell will affect government and religious institutions.

    At NPR, Nina Totenberg provides an overview in the Supreme Court’s opinions from the last day of the term.

    Moshe Marvit argues at Talking Points Memo that a new Supreme Court case – Friedrichs v. California Teachers’ Association – is a major threat to public sector unions.