Key employment dispute leaves Supreme Court divided

By Lawrence Hurley and Robert Iafolla

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday defended the right of workers to bring class-action claims against companies but their conservative counterparts who are in the majority sounded skeptical in the biggest business case of the court’s new term.

A win for employers would give the green-light to an already growing trend in which companies require workers to sign arbitration agreements waiving their right to bring class-action claims either in court or before private arbitrators.

About 25 million workers are already bound by such agreements, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute think tank.

The nine justices heard roughly an hour of arguments in the case on the first day of their new nine-month term. They also heard arguments in an immigration dispute, and have a series of major cases lined up in the coming months regarding voting rights, religious liberty, union funding and other issues. [L2N1M81Y3]

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said he was worried that a ruling against the workers would imperil “the entire heart of the New Deal,” laws and programs enacted in the 1930s under President Franklin Roosevelt to help workers during the Great Depression.

“I haven’t seen a way that you can, in fact, win the case, which you certainly want to do, without undermining and changing radically what has gone back to the New Deal,” Breyer told Paul Clement, a lawyer representing the employers.

Employers have increasingly required employees to sign waivers to guard against a rising tide of worker lawsuits seeking unpaid wages. Class-action litigation can result in large damages awards by juries and is harder for businesses to fight than cases brought by individual plaintiffs.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the ability of workers to join together to bring claims against an employer was the “driving force” behind a key federal law enacted to regulate labor disputes.

Many cases involve claims…

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