Two Employment Decisions from the Supreme Court

On May 24, the Supreme Court issued two employment-related opinions. The first, Lewis v. Chicago, concerned the filing deadline for disparate impact discrimination cases under Title VII. The black firefighter plaintiffs in the case sought to challenge a written test used for determining promotions. The question is whether their statute of limitations began running when the test was scored, or when the test results were actually used to determine promotion decisions. Reversing the Seventh Circuit, the Court unanimously held (Scalia writing) that it was the latter because it was the use of the test results that could constitute an "employment practice" challengable under Title VII. The case likely will return to the trial court, where the plaintiffs had originally won before the appeals. Additional coverage is here.

The second case, Hardt v. Reliance Standard Life Insurance Co., concerns when plaintiffs in ERISA actions can receive attorneys' fees for succeeding in their case. ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) is the statue that governs employee benefits plans. In this case, the plaintiff challenged the insurance company's denial of her long-term disability benefits, and after a court found she would likely prevail, the insurance company awarded her the benefits.

In a nearly unanimous opinion (Thomas writing) reversing the Fourth Circuit, the Court held that a party who seeks to recover attorney’s fees in an ERISA case does not need to be a “prevailing party.” Instead, a court may award fees and costs under the statute if the claimant has achieved “some degree of success on the merits.” Thus, the trial court here was correct in awarding the plaintiff attorneys' fees for basically succeeding in obtaining her benefits. More coverage here and here.