Supreme Court Blocks OSHA Vaccine-Or-Test Rule

Frederick G. Sandstrom 

In a much-anticipated decision, the United States Supreme Court has blocked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (“OSHA”) “vaccinate or test” Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”). The Court’s January 13, 2022, decision means that the ETS is stayed pending a hearing on the merits of the challenges to its validity. However, in practical terms, it is likely a death-knell for the ETS, which was set to expire in May 2022.

The Court’s per curiam opinion, written on behalf of the six conservative-leaning justices, held that the ETS exceeded OSHA’s statutory power because it sought to broadly regulate “public health” and was not directed specifically at workplace safety. The Court explained: “It is telling that OSHA, in its half century of existence, has never before adopted a broad public health regulation of this kind—addressing a threat that is untethered, in any causal sense, from the workplace.”

In a concurring opinion joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, Justice Gorsuch elaborated that the “major questions doctrine” requires Congress to delegate clearly and specifically to an agency the authority to mandate Covid-19 vaccination or testing. Absent a clear and specific delegation, the Constitution reserves that power to “the states and Congress, not OSHA.”

The Court’s three liberal-leaning justices dissented. The dissenting opinion, co-authored by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, asserted that the ETS fell squarely within OSHA’s emergency power because it was necessary to “protect employees” from a “grave danger” to workplace safety. The dissent argued further that, even if the merits of the ETS were reasonably in dispute, a stay would still be inappropriate because the “public interest” and “balance of harms” supported allowing the ETS to remain in effect. In conclusion, the dissent accused the majority’s decision of “undercut[ting] the capacity of the responsible federal officials, acting well within the scope of their authority, to protect American workers from grave danger.”

A final note: While fatal to the ETS, the Court’s decision likely is not the final word on broad workplace safety responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that OSHA has been blocked from taking action, it is reasonable to expect that some state workplace safety agencies will become more active in adopting their own measures aimed at Covid-19 safety in the workplace. Stay tuned for more on the development of any new state-level rules and also on what happens with the ETS as it heads back to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Employers Await Supreme Court Decision on OSHA ETS Appeal

Frederick G. Sandstrom and Nicole N. Wentworth

On Friday, January 7, 2022, the United States Supreme Court held oral argument on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (“OSHA”) much-litigated “vaccinate or test” Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”). Absent action by the Court, compliance with the ETS is set to  commence today, Monday, January 10, though OSHA has said it will not issue citations to employers who have made a good faith attempt to comply with the testing requirements. The Court is expected to issue a decision promptly.

The argument was originally scheduled for one hour but ran nearly two hours due to extensive questioning by the justices. The Court’s six conservative-leaning justices all appeared skeptical of the enforceability of the ETS, but their questions suggested a divide in the legal basis for their views. Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch’s questioning suggested that they viewed the mandate as clearly outside OSHA’s authority to regulate workplace safety. Justices Roberts, Kavanaugh, and Barrett suggested a narrower view in their questioning, indicating that they may see OSHA as having the authority to impose a narrower emergency mandate targeted at specific fields or industries that present unique safety risks. Justices Roberts, Kavanaugh, and Barrett also suggested that only Congress has the power to impose a broad federal vaccine mandate (like the current ETS) and that in the absence of congressional action, the power to impose an economy-wide mandate was reserved to the states. The Court’s liberal-leaning justices—Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan—all expressed strong support for the ETS in their questioning.

During questioning, Justice Alito asked the Solicitor General (representing the federal government) if there was any objection to a brief administrative stay of the January 10 compliance deadline pending the Court’s decision on the appeal. The Solicitor General largely conceded that a brief stay would be appropriate.

We will post a prompt update when the Court issues a decision on the ETS appeal. In the meantime, covered employers should continue to proceed with good faith preparations to implement the requirements of the ETS.

The Return of the OSHA ETS: What Now and What’s Next?

Frederick G. Sandstrom

On December 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit revived the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s much-litigated “vaccinate or test” Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”). The Sixth Circuit’s divided decision lifted the nationwide stay on enforcement of the ETS that had previously been ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The litigation will now move to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already received eight separate petitions seeking to stay the Sixth Circuit’s decision. The Supreme Court has ordered the federal government to respond to the petitions by December 30.

OSHA has moved quickly to reinstate the ETS. On December 18, OSHA released new guidance on the timing for compliance with, and enforcement of, the ETS’s requirements. Broadly speaking, the guidance states that: (1) OSHA will not issue citations for noncompliance with the ETS prior to January 10, 2022; and (2) OSHA also will not issue citations for noncompliance with the ETS’s testing requirements prior to February 9, 2022, provided that an employer is “exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance.”

OSHA has promised more detailed guidance. And there will likely be more twists and turns as the appeals from the Sixth Circuit’s decision proceed to the Supreme Court. For now, however, covered employers that paused their efforts to comply with the ETS in light of the stay, should take steps to resume their efforts to continue down the path to compliance. The December 18 guidance suggests strongly that OSHA expects covered employers to do the following by the initial January 10 compliance deadline: (1) adopt a written vaccination policy; (2) confirm each employee’s vaccination status, including proof of vaccination for vaccinated employees; (3) provide paid time off for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated employees to be vaccinated; and (4) require face coverings and other protective measures for unvaccinated employees working on-site. The ETS also contains informational requirements, including an obligation for covered employers to provide employees with a copy of the CDC’s publication on “Key Things to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines” (a copy of which can be obtained here).

We will continue to update you on further developments regarding the ETS as the appeals process continues before the Supreme Court.

Finally! U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh in on Title VII LGBTQ+ Protection

Jason E. Reisman and Mark Blondman

Just this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court finally agreed to hear three cases from the circuit courts that split on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects against discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The basic question boils down to whether the word “sex” includes a protection for LGBTQ+ employees.

EEOC Initiative/Trigger. Though there have been efforts over the last 50+ years to seek such protection under Title VII, the true impact came from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) push beginning in 2012, when it issued an administrative ruling holding that gender identity discrimination constitutes sex bias and therefore is protected. As everyone probably knows, in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit jumped into the fray with both feet in 2017, finding that Title VII’s “sex” does indeed include sexual orientation. In fact, before the full Seventh Circuit heard that case, a three-judge panel on that court had stated that it was a “paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act”—a reference to same sex marriage being legal. Continue reading “Finally! U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh in on Title VII LGBTQ+ Protection”

The Epic Systems Decision: Where Do Employers Go from Here?

Emery Gullickson Richards

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis has significant ramifications for the scope of class action waivers in employee arbitration agreements. In each of the three consolidated cases that the Court’s opinion addressed, the plaintiffs were pursuing class/collective actions with Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) claims for unpaid overtime. Plaintiff Sheila Hobson’s FLSA claim in the Murphy Oil case had been dismissed by the trial court as a result of the arbitration provision in the employment agreement she signed when she started work at a gas station in Alabama. By contrast, plaintiff Jacob Lewis, a technical communications employee, had overcome a motion to dismiss his FLSA overtime class action in the Epic Systems case by arguing that a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement that had been emailed to him by his employer was unenforceable. In the Ernst & Young case, plaintiff Stephen Morris sought unpaid overtime under the FLSA and the California Labor Code for working long hours during audit season. As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, after remand, all of these claims now appear destined for arbitration unless they are resolved. The Epic Systems decision represents a broader affirmation, however, that arbitration agreements are enforceable regardless of the nature of an employee’s claim, even if the claims are brought pursuant to employment statutes that explicitly provide for class or collective actions. Continue reading “The Epic Systems Decision: Where Do Employers Go from Here?”

Epic Shift: Supreme Court Enforces Class Action Waivers in Arbitration Agreements

Emery Gullickson Richards

The Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on May 21, 2018, which has widespread implications for all employers. In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Gorsuch, the Supreme Court held that arbitration agreements and class/collective action waivers are enforceable, putting to rest any argument that the National Labor Relations Act prevents or limits their enforceability. The decision provides employers further options for limiting litigation risk, particularly with respect to costly wage and hour collective actions. The decision also contains important implications for employers that maintain or are considering implementing arbitration agreements in the workplace, as there is no longer any identified legal impediment to the concept of an employer requiring its employees to waive the ability to bring a class or collective action under federal, state, and local employment laws. Continue readingEpic Shift: Supreme Court Enforces Class Action Waivers in Arbitration Agreements”

%d bloggers like this: