Topic: Regulatory Studies

Clearly Worded Contracts Should Be Enforced

Freedom of contract—the right of individuals to manage and govern their own affairs—is a basic and necessary liberty. The appropriate role of the government in contract-law disputes is to hold parties to their word, not to enforce its own policy preferences.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently struck a blow against that basic freedom, however, in ruling that clearly worded arbitration provisions—one of the most common parts of consumer contracts—are unenforceable unless the parties comply with multiple superfluous formalities. The case arose when Patricia Atalese retained a law firm, U.S. Legal Services Group, to negotiate with creditors on her behalf. Atalese signed a retainer agreement with a standard arbitration provision: she checked a box that unambiguously indicated that she read and understood that all disputes would be settled via arbitration. Then, after a dispute over legal fees, Atalese disregarded the arbitration agreement and filed a lawsuit in state court.

The trial court dismissed her complaint and compelled arbitration, a ruling that was affirmed by the intermediate appellate court. But instead of letting that decision stand, the New Jersey Supreme Court broke from years of tradition and federal precedent found the arbitration provision unenforceable because it lacked certain magic words stating, in addition to all disputes being resolved by arbitration, that the parties were waiving their right to a civil jury trial.

Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, has filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. We make three key points. First, the New Jersey court’s proposed requirement—that contracts with an arbitration provision include belt-and-suspenders-and-drawstring language regarding jury-trial waiver—is redundant. Agreeing to submit a dispute to an impartial arbitrator instead of going through the expense of litigation is the very essence of an arbitration agreement.

“Slipshod Work, Faulty Analysis, And Statistical Sleight Of Hand” At the EEOC

We’ve reported earlier in this space on how the Obama administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) keeps getting slapped down by federal judges over what we called its “long-shot lawsuits and activist legal positions.” Now the Fourth Circuit has weighed in on a high-profile employment screening case from Maryland – and it too has given the EEOC a good thwacking, in this case over “pervasive errors and utterly unreliable analysis” in the expert testimony it marshaled to show the employer’s liability. Those are the words of a three-judge panel consisting of Judge Roger Gregory, originally appointed to the court by Bill Clinton before being re-appointed by his successor George W. Bush, joined by Obama appointee Albert Diaz and GWB appointee G. Steven Agee. 

The case arose from the EEOC’s much-publicized initiative of going after employers that use criminal background checks in hiring, which the agency insists often have improper disparate impact on minority applicants and have not been validated as necessary for business reasons. It sued the Freeman Cos., a provider of convention and exposition services, over its screening methods, but Freeman won after district court judge Roger Titus shredded the EEOC’s proffered expert evidence as “laughable,” “unreliable,” and “mind-boggling.” The EEOC appealed to the Fourth Circuit. 

If it was expecting vindication there, it was very wrong. Agreeing with Judge Titus, Judge Gregory cited the “pervasive errors and utterly unreliable analysis” of the commission’s expert report, by psychologist Kevin Murphy. “The sheer number of mistakes and omissions in Murphy’s analysis renders it ‘outside the range where experts might reasonably differ,’” which meant it could not have been an abuse of discretion for Judge Titus to exclude it. 

Strong language, yet Judge Agee chose to write a separate concurrence “to address my concern with the EEOC’s disappointing litigation conduct.” Noting a pattern in multiple cases, Agee faulted the commission’s lawyers for circling the wagons on behalf of its statistical methods despite repeated judicial hints that it needed to strengthen its quality control. “Despite Murphy’s record of slipshod work, faulty analysis, and statistical sleight of hand, the EEOC continues on appeal to defend his testimony.” If the agency doesn’t watch out, exasperated judges might start imposing more sanctions against it. 

Incidentally, as a counterpoint to the EEOC’s bullheadedness, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights a year back did a briefing program on employee screening and criminal background checks that tries to include an actual balance of views. You can read and download it here.

Is “Colorado’s Marijuana Money Going Up In Smoke?”

NPR has an interesting story about the interaction between Colorado’s tax revenue from legalized marijuana and its Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR):

Colorado voters overwhelmingly supported state taxes on marijuana, and the state collected tens of millions of dollars in the first year of legalization. But in a strange twist, all those taxes raised from pot may have to be refunded because of a quirk in the state’s constitution. That means money earmarked for schools and drug prevention programs could be lost unless lawmakers agree on a solution.

Liberal supporters of legalization will worry that this conflict threatens to invalidate a key argument for legalization; conservative opponents will use the conflict to claim legalization was oversold.

But libertarian legalizers should not care much either way.  The crucial arguments for legalization are increased freedom for marijuana users and decreased prohibition costs for everyone, not increased tax revenue.

So if Coloradans end up with legal marijuana and an income tax refund, that’s just fine.

Judges Say No To Obama Labor Regulators’ Hot Blueberry Crush

What does federal labor law have in common with civil forfeiture law? As I write at Reason:

Under a provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, the U.S. Department of Labor can seek what is known as a “hot goods” order, freezing the physical output of an employer that it suspects of having violated wage and hour law, all without having to prove its case at a trial.

Until lately the procedure was little known to the general public, but the Obama administration, amid its general all-fronts offensive to expand wage and hour law and intensify its enforcement, has begun using it against farmers in a series of actions. Applied to agriculture, a “hot goods” order is even more than usually coercive, because both sides know the crop will rot if not brought to market soon. Moreover, as in many forfeiture cases, the freezing of a target’s most valuable asset may mean that it cannot afford legal help to appeal or otherwise challenge what has happened — all of which gives the federal government the leverage to get what it wants in resulting negotiations without having to test the strength of its case at trial.

Now, however, a federal judge has slapped down the administration hard in a Pacific Northwest case that farm groups had described as “extortion.” In a humiliating defeat, the Department of Labor has agreed to drop charges against two Oregon blueberry growers and refund the moneys extracted from them. It’s a case that should rally attention to the need to roll back the Department’s powers in this area.

My whole Reason piece is here.

Regulations and Taxes: Democrats Then and Now

In recent decades, the Democratic Party has moved far to the left on economic policy. I have discussed the leftward shift on tax policy, which was illustrated once again by President Obama’s generally awful proposals in his new budget (see here, here, and here).

What about regulations? Consider the following statement by President Jimmy Carter on his signing a landmark railroad deregulation bill in 1980. Have you ever heard President Obama express such views or push for similar sorts of legislation?

Today I take great pleasure in signing the Staggers Rail Act of 1980. This legislation builds on the railroad deregulation proposal I sent to Congress in March 1979. It is vital to the railroad industry and to all Americans who depend upon rail services.

By stripping away needless and costly regulation in favor of marketplace forces wherever possible, this act will help assure a strong and healthy future for our Nation’s railroads and the men and women who work for them. It will benefit shippers throughout the country by encouraging railroads to improve their equipment and better tailor their service to shipper needs. America’s consumers will benefit, for rather than face the prospect of continuing deterioration of rail freight service, consumers can be assured of improved railroads delivering their goods with dispatch …

This act is the capstone of my efforts over the past 4 years to get the Federal Government off the backs of private industry by removing needless, burdensome regulation which benefits no one and harms us all. We have deregulated the airlines, a step that restored competitive forces to the airline industry and allowed new, innovative services. We have freed the trucking industry from archaic and inflationary regulations, an action that will allow the startup of new companies, encourage price competition, and improve service. We have deregulated financial institutions, permitting banks to pay interest on checking accounts and higher interest to small savers and eliminating many restrictions on savings institutions loans.

Where regulations cannot be eliminated, we have established a program to reform the way they are produced and reviewed. By Executive order, we have mandated regulators to carefully and publicly analyze the costs of major proposals. We have required that interested members of the public be given more opportunity to participate in the regulatory process. We have established a sunset review program for major new regulations and cut Federal paperwork by 15 percent. We created a Regulatory Council, which is eliminating inconsistent regulations and encouraging innovative regulatory techniques saving hundreds of millions of dollars while still meeting important statutory goals. And Congress recently passed the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which converts into law my administrative program requiring Federal agencies to work to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens on small business. I am hopeful for congressional action on my broad regulatory reform proposal now pending, to help complete congressional action on my regulatory reform proposals.

Today these efforts continue with deregulation of the railroad industry and mark the past 4 years as a time in which the Congress and the executive branch stepped forward together in the most significant and successful deregulation program in our Nation’s history. We have secured the most fundamental restructuring of the relationship between industry and government since the time of the New Deal.

In recent decades the problems of the railroad industry have become severe. Its 1979 rate of return on net investment was 2.7 percent, as compared to over 10 percent for comparable industries. We have seen a number of major railroad bankruptcies and the continuing expenditure of billions of Federal dollars to keep railroads running. Service and equipment have deteriorated. A key reason for this state of affairs has been overregulation by the Federal Government. At the heart of this legislation is freeing the railroad industry and its customers from such excessive control.

Voters Take Aim at Low Wages, Kill Bookstore

Don’t believe minimum wage hikes hurt real people? After March 31, a famed sci-fi bookstore on Valencia St. in San Francisco’s Mission District will no longer be able to cater to your taste in fantasy:

The change in minimum wage will mean our payroll will increase roughly 39%.  That increase will in turn bring up our total operating expenses by 18%.  To make up for that expense, we would need to increase our sales by a minimum of 20%.  We do not believe that is a realistic possibility for a bookstore in San Francisco at this time.

And this, which speaks for itself:

In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in [principle] and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco – Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.  Consequently we will be closing our doors no later than March 31st.  The cafe will continue to operate until at least the end of this year.

Early reactions from customers online run heavily to two themes: 1) anguish that a beloved cultural institution is passing from the scene and 2) reflections that they, the fans and customers, had supported the minimum wage hike too when it was on the ballot. (It might restrict businesses’ rights, but who cares about that?) But in this world – as in so many of the well-crafted alternative worlds of science fiction – the link between actions and their logical consequences, foreseen and intended or otherwise, is not to be broken.

Employers Aren’t Mind-Readers and Shouldn’t Be Forced to Pry Into Employees’ Religious Beliefs

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws against employment discrimination. Along with enforcing these laws—most notably, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin—the EEOC tells employers how not to discriminate. For example, the EEOC’s Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace instructs that an employer should “avoid assumptions or stereotypes about what constitutes a religious belief” and that managers “should be trained not to engage in stereotyping based on religious dress and grooming practices.” 

It’s passing strange, then, that the government is now arguing before the Supreme Court not only that employers can do these things, but that they must, or face liability under Title VII, in the context of reasonable accommodations that companies have to make for religious practice. Discerning when such accommodations are necessary can be difficult because people practice religion differently—and often in their own personal, non-obvious way. 

Title VII has thus traditionally been understood to leave it to the employee to determine when a company policy conflicts with his or her religious practice and then to request an accommodation. This interpretation leaves employers free to pursue neutral policies up to the point that they have actual knowledge of such a conflict. 

In the last several years, however, the EEOC has apparently taken the position that employers must pry into their employees’ religious practices whenever they have an inkling of suspicion that an accommodation may be needed. Abercrombie & Fitch is one company that has found out just how impossible a situation this puts employers into. When Abercrombie decided not to hire Samantha Elauf as a sales associate based on her violation of the company’s “Look Policy”—a branding guide that, among other things, prohibits the wearing of clothing generally not sold by the store, like Elauf’s black headscarf—the company found itself on the wrong end of a government lawsuit. 

A federal district court ruled for the EEOC even though Elauf never informed them that she would need a religious accommodation.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that an employer must actually know about a religious practice before it can be held liable for discriminating on that basis. The Supreme Court took the case at the EEOC’s request and Cato has now filed a brief in support of Abercrombie. 

We argue that employers must have actual knowledge of the potential need for a religious accommodation before they can be held liable for violating Title VII because the EEOC hasn’t offered any coherent alternative and because employers already know how to use this tried-and-true actual-knowledge standard. In addition, the burden of identifying the need for accommodations has to be on the employee because, after all, it’s their religion, and thus they are in a significantly better position to identify conflicts than employers—who aren’t mind-readers and shouldn’t have to rely on crude stereotypes or pry into employees’ personal lives. 

An opposite rule would create an awkward and uncomfortable scenario all-around. The EEOC’s position is short-sighted; if the agency somehow prevails, it will have done what federal agencies do best: turn minimal burdens for some people into heavy burdens for everyone.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. on February 25.