The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

HR and the Courts

Each month, CUPA-HR General Counsel Ira Shepard provides an overview of several labor and employment law cases and regulatory actions with implications for the higher ed workplace. Here’s the latest from Ira.

Federal Contractor Vaccine Mandate Blocked Nationwide By Georgia Federal Court, Georgia Universities Testified in Favor of the Injunction

A federal district court judge in Georgia issued a nationwide injunction blocking the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate applicable to all federal contractors (Georgia v. Biden (S.D. Ga., No. 21-cv-00163, 12/7/21)). The mandate was scheduled to go into effective January 4, 2022 and had been the subject of several lawsuits in multiple states attempting to block the mandate.

Georgia was joined by seven states in the litigation. Representatives from Georgia universities testified at the injunction hearing that the mandate would be expensive, onerous and cost them valuable employees who have not yet presented proof of vaccination. The judge ruled that blocking the mandate was not because the vaccine would not be effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19, but rather that President Biden did not have the power to issue such an Executive Order. The judge rued that the mandate went beyond the President’s power to issue orders “addressing administrative and management issues in order to promote efficiency and economy in procurement and contracting.”

College Employee’s Discussion With Coworkers About Institutional Racism Is Basis For Discriminatory Discharge and Retaliation Claims

A federal district court judge recently ruled that a discriminatory discharge and retaliation case, based on the plaintiff’s allegations that he was terminated because he facilitated a discussion of institutional racism among coworkers, states a claim of unlawful discrimination based on race. Prior to discharge, the plaintiff was in charge of the college’s program assisting high school students in danger of dropping out (Debro v. Contra Costa Community College (2021 BL 456753, N.D. Cal. No. 3:20-cv-08876, 11/30/21)).

The plaintiff was given permission in advance to facilitate a discussion of institutional racism among coworkers. Following the discussion, two white subordinates filed race discrimination claims alleging that the plaintiff made them uncomfortable expressing their own views on institutional racism. The plaintiff was subsequently fired by the college after it was concluded that he violated the college’s rules against harassment based on race as he made others uncomfortable expressing their views on institutional racism.

The federal district court judge concluded that the plaintiff’s complaint adequately stated claims of race discrimination in violation of both federal and state law and will move forward to discovery and trial.

Labor Advocacy Group Files Complaint With NLRB Alleging That the NCAA Has Misclassified College and University Sports Players as Student-Athletes as Opposed to Employees

A new advocacy group, the College Basketball Players Association, has filed a complaint with the Indianapolis office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that the NCAA is violating federal labor law by misclassifying college sports players as student-athletes as opposed to employees. In 2015, the NLRB rejected an attempt by Northwestern University football players to form a union concluding that it would not advance the purposes of U.S. labor law. However, more recently the new NLRB general counsel publicly stated that in her view at least some college athletes are employees. This case could be the vehicle the general counsel may use to bring this issue before the NLRB for review. CUPA-HR will watch this case as it progresses and report on future developments.

Union Collective Bargaining Between Graduate and Undergraduate Student Teachers and Researchers Continues at Some Private Institutions

Harvard University and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union announced an agreement on a new four-year collective bargaining agreement in mid-November just hours before a planned strike by a student employee bargaining unit at the university. The Harvard Graduate Students Union is represented by the UAW and consists of a bargaining unit of 4,500 graduate and undergraduate students who work as teachers and researchers. Details of the new four-year contract were not immediately disclosed or available.

56-Year-Old Baseball Coaching Applicant Loses Age Discrimination Lawsuit Against University Where 31-Year-Old Applicant Was Chosen

The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (covering Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana) affirmed a summary judgement decision by the trial court in favor of Indiana University South Bend, rejecting the age discrimination lawsuit filed by a 56-year-old applicant because the university hired a 31-year-old applicant. The court concluded that there was no evidence that the plaintiff was discriminated against because of his age (Reinebold v. Bruce (2021 BL 442817, 7th Cir., No. 21-1092, 11/18/21)).

There were 94 applicants for the position of head baseball coach. The university chose 10 applicants for telephone interviews, including the plaintiff. The plaintiff was not among the four chosen from the telephone interviews for a final in-person interview. While the plaintiff had a better career win/loss percentage that the 31-year-old applicant chosen as the new head coach, all four of the telephone interviewers concluded that plaintiff’s presentation was not good, including one interviewer who concluded that the plaintiff’s interview was “One of the worst interviews he had ever experienced.”

The court concluded that one of the interviewer’s remarks to his barber that “We chose the younger applicant” was a stray remark and did not provide evidence of age discrimination.

EEOC Loses Attempt to Invalidate Employer’s Negotiation Defense to an Equal Pay Act Claim Brought By a School District Superintendent Who Was Paid Less Than Her Male Predecessor 

The EEOC recently filed a case on behalf of a school district superintendent under the Equal Pay Act alleging that the school district violated the law by paying the new female superintendent less than it paid her male predecessor.

The school district defended, alleging that the female superintendent failed to negotiate a higher salary. The EEOC argued that failure to negotiate a higher salary is not a valid defense to an Equal Pay Act claim. The school district countered that the Supreme Court has never ruled that failure to negotiate a higher salary is not a factor other than sex, and other courts have held that that is a valid factor other than sex in these circumstances. The federal district court judge hearing the case sided with the school district holding that, for now, and subject to further consideration, the EEOC failed to show that the defense could not be raised (EEOC v. Hunter–Tannersville Central School District (2021 Bl 460087, N.D.N.Y. No. 1:21-cv-00352, 12/2/21)). The judge concluded whether or not the defense is valid is a decision for the U.S. Court of Appeals.