The Supreme Court opened its 2012 term Oct. 1, having agreed to consider the smallest number of cases in many years. Despite the low number of cases currently docketed, the court faces disputes with significant implications for people 50 or older. Once again, AARP Foundation Litigation has issued its Supreme Court Preview (PDF) discussing those cases impacting older people.
In Genesis Healthcare Corp v. Symczyk the court will consider the permissible limits on the rights of groups of employees to challenge employer practices in collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Because the section of FLSA being scrutinized in Symczyk also applies to collective actions under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the case is extremely important to older workers. The specific issue involves whether a full offer of settlement with a single named plaintiff in a collective action necessitates dismissal of the entire suit; if that view is accepted, employers will be permitted to "buy off" named plaintiffs and continue allegedly discriminatory practices unimpeded. Alternatively, the employees argue that if a named plaintiff settles early in a collective action, the pleadings should be allowed to "relate back" to before the settlement (when there was a live plaintiff, acting for others "similarly situated") once a motion to certify a collective action is filed and/or decided on behalf of the other members of the action. Collective actions are different than class actions, although both are efforts to permit large numbers of plaintiffs to accomplish together what they could not accomplish on their own. The scope and significance of this distinction will be important as the court considers the Symczyk case.
Vance v. Ball State University poses the question: "Who is a supervisor?" Vance — the only African American in the banquet and catering department at Ball State — sued the university after she was subjected, she alleges, to racial epithets, references to the Ku Klux Klan and veiled threats of physical harm. The role of a catering specialist whom Vance considered (and Ball State sometimes described) as her supervisor is the question before the court. Ball State now says the specialist was not a supervisor but had floating duties that changed frequently and sometimes placed her in supervisory roles over Vance temporarily. There is a split in the circuit courts regarding the proper legal test for determining who is a supervisor. The answer to the question has enormous implications for other employment-discrimination claims such as those based on age and disability bias.