Tags: Supreme Court | Supreme Court | labor dispute

Supreme Court Justices Scold Both Sides in Labor Dispute

By    |   Tuesday, 11 Nov 2014 03:36 PM

Like Humpty Dumpty lecturing Alice about the meaning of words, the Supreme Court this week wrestled with a case in which lawyers from both sides appeared to be making the same argument while insisting on a different definition of a disputed labor contract.

Justice Stephen Breyer at one point interrupted the attorney for the company being sued by its retirees.

“The other side is arguing the same thing and … since both sides want to argue the same thing, maybe we can just agree with them,” he said.

Despite the judicial humor, the dispute between M&G Polymers USA and its retirees, led by plaintiff Hobert Tackett, is a serious case involving a West Virginia chemical plant and the former employees who stand to lose healthcare benefits.

The issue involves a labor contract that fails to specify whether the retirees will get company-covered healthcare for as long as they live. The company argues that the employees lose the healthcare when they retire because the union contract fails to address the issue. The retirees insist that they deserve the health benefits for exactly the same reason. The retirees won the case at the Sixth Circuit Court.

Allyson Ho, representing M&G, told the Supreme Court on Monday that imposing lifetime healthcare benefits would impose an “extraordinary obligation,” reported The National Law Journal.

"A promise of unalterable costly healthcare benefits should be negotiated at the bargaining table, not imposed at the courthouse," she said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a brief supporting the company, warned of broader consequences if the Supreme Court sides with the retirees.

Upholding the Sixth Circuit Court decision "threatens to impose enormous and unforeseen retroactive funding liabilities on American companies” that did not intend to offer lifetime healthcare, the Chamber said.

Julia Clark, the retirees’ attorney, argued that the absence of the language guaranteeing lifetime healthcare is common in contracts.

She added that the court should “determine what the parties intended without applying any presumptions.”

Robert Mann, a writer at SCOTUSblog, noted that the justices recognized how “poorly the agreements at issue were drafted.”

“At a time when the vesting of these benefits was common, it is disappointing at best for the agreement to address the question so obliquely,” he wrote Tuesday.

Justice Elena Kagan complained to Ho that “we’re left with this ambiguity, and you have some language and they have some language and some judge has to figure it out.”

Justice Antonin Scalia sounded equally exasperated: “Both sides knew it was left unaddressed, so whoever loses deserves to lose for casting this upon us when it could have been said very clearly in the contract.”

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Like Humpty Dumpty lecturing Alice about the meaning of words, the Supreme Court this week wrestled with a case in which lawyers from both sides appeared to be making the same argument while insisting on a different definition of a disputed labor contract.
Supreme Court, labor dispute
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2014-36-11
Tuesday, 11 Nov 2014 03:36 PM
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