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Unions May Sue To Enforce Notice of Layoffs, Court Rules

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week that labor unions may sue on behalf of their members to enforce a federal law that requires 60 days' notice of plant closings and mass layoffs.

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, a 1988 law known as the WARN Act, applies to employers with 100 or more workers, including most school districts. The law had an impact on districts during the early 1990's, when the economic recession forced some districts to consider laying off teachers.

At issue in the case of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 751 v. Brown Group Inc. (Case No. 95-340) is whether labor unions themselves may sue on behalf of their members for back pay for each day an employer is in violation of the statute.

Under long-established principles of legal standing, individuals must sue on their own behalf when damages will be distributed based on individual circumstances. Two lower courts had rejected a lawsuit filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers on behalf of 277 workers who lost their jobs when the Brown Shoe Co. shut a Missouri plant in 1992.

The union claimed the company had failed to give proper notice of the shutdown in violation of the WARN Act, and it sought 60 days' back pay for each of the workers. But the lower federal courts said the individual workers had to file suits to enforce the act because the union lacked standing to sue.

The high court reversed the lower courts and reinstated the union's lawsuit. Writing for the court on May 13, Justice David H. Souter said Congress intended to grant unions the authority to sue to enforce the WARN Act.

The principle of making individuals sue on their own behalf when individual damage awards are involved is a "judicially fashioned" rule designed to improve the administration of justice, but it is not constitutionally required, he wrote. There are numerous examples of litigation involving "representative damages," he noted, such as class actions or discrimination complaints filed on behalf of workers by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Once a union has shown that it will vigorously pursue claims on behalf of its individual member, "it is difficult to see a constitutional necessity for anything more," Justice Souter wrote.

Other Cases

In separate action last week, the court:

  • Struck down Rhode Island's ban against liquor-price advertising as a violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

    Some legal experts wondered whether the ruling in 44 Liquormart Inc. v. Rhode Island (No. 94-1140) will make it more difficult for the Clinton administration to impose new regulations to protect children from exposure to tobacco advertising. For example, one measure under discussion would bar tobacco advertising on billboards within 1,000 feet of a school.

    The high court, in a unanimous judgment with several fractured opinions, said the First Amendment protects the dissemination of truthful, nonmisleading information about a legal product.

  • Declined to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit that the inclusion of a Latin cross in the Edmond, Okla., city seal violates the constitutional ban against a government establishment of religion. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they would have granted review of the case of City of Edmond v. Robinson (No. 95-879), which could have held implications for religious expression in public schools.
  • Agreed to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that authorized lawsuits by custodial parents against states to require them to improve their child-support-enforcement programs.

    Thirty-six states filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Blessing v. Freestone (No. 95-1441), urging the high court to review the decision. They said it could wreak havoc on state child-support programs, which are already subject to review by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

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