By Joseph Schuman
Help from the past for complaints of improper termination
Labor lawyers take note: A law passed by Congress governing communication on the Internet is giving workers a new tool to bolster claims that they were wrongfully fired. Never mind that it was passed in 1935.
The National Labor Relations Act of that year gave private-sector workers the right to make some complaints about their pay, workplace safety and other conditions without fear of retaliation, the Wall Street Journal reports. (Before some readers get ahead of themselves, allow Summary Judgments to point out that mere grumbling and grousing aren't protected.) In the past year, workers have accused 100 employers, including Wal-Mart Stores, of improper practice or policies related to workers rights when it comes to using Facebook, Twitter or other social networks. The accusations were made to the National Labor Relations Board, whose lawyers have decided about half the complaints have enough merit for the NLRB to step in.
This is a new area for the NLRB, which has been accused by Republicans of unfairly siding with unions against employers under the Obama administration. The first such NLRB social media case involved paramedic Dawnmarie Souza, who was fired by Connecticut-based American Medical Response after a supervisor questioned her about a customer complaint. According to the NLRB investigation, Souza then went on Facebook, where she called the supervisor a "scumbag." NLRB lawyers judged the firing illegal because it was part of an online discussion between employees and therefore amounted to "protected concerted activity" under the 1935 law. Moreover, the agency says, Souza's comments were provoked by the supervisor's improper denial of Souza's request to have union representation at their meeting. The case was settled before it could be heard by an NLRB administrative judge.
That was in February, and by May the agency had received 113 such accusations of illegal social media-related behavior by employers. A key measure of whether employee activity is protected by the law is whether it involves collective bargaining, pay policies or other group activities, NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon tells the Journal. But applying the rules to online communications can be difficult. For instance, the agency hasn't yet had a case allowing it to make a determination if postings on workplace computers are protected. But Michael Pepperman, a partner at Philadelphia law firm Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel who represents employers, says that "companies can no longer have a knee-jerk reaction to these kinds of terminations."
War crimes court is ready to build its own HQ
Nearly a decade after its creation, the International Criminal Court is growing into its mission, with a series of high-level cases this year that has more than doubled the number of alleged war crimes it is prosecuting and investigating. Now, the ICC wants its own office.
The ICC opened for business in 2002 as the first permanent international venue to deal with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, after Yugoslavia, Rwanda and other hotspots of the 1990s showed growing demand. But its buildings no longer fit the ICC's needs. In 2007, the member states of the Rome Statute, which created the ICC, voted to pay for new digs. But the administrative wheels in the Hague seem to move as slowly as a judicial process. Only on Thursday did the ICC get around to inviting bids for a construction contract for the 560,000 square feet headquarters. Interested builders have until Jan. 17 to make their offer.
In the meantime, the ICC keeps taking on more cases. Today, Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked the court to issue an arrest warrant against Sudanese Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein as part of the ICC's prosecution of war crimes in Darfur. Moreno-Ocampo's office said that Hussein, as interior minister and presidential envoy to Darfur in 2003 and 2004, is personally responsible for attacks on civilians in villages and towns that were part of a campaign to force out the non-Arab Sudanese living there. "The attacks followed a common pattern: the government of Sudan forces surrounded the villages, the air force dropped bombs indiscriminately and foot soldiers, including militia/Janjaweed, killed, raped and looted the entire village, forcing the displacement of 4 million inhabitants," the prosecutor's office said. Some 2.5 million of those people, it added, remain in camps for displaced persons.
FBI uses Muslim outreach program to ‘collect intelligence’
No one's disputing the fact that FBI agents are attending mosques and events held by Muslim groups around the country, and keeping records on the political and religious affiliations of those they meet. But while the bureau says its actions are innocent, critics say it’s a violation of federal law.
The American Civil Liberties Union is citing internal FBI documents that show agents are compiling Social Security numbers, other identifying information and even the political views of the people they meet at career days and community briefings, the Washington Post reports. And some agents are conducting follow-up inquiries, though large redactions in the documents obtained by the ACLU through a lawsuit make it hard to figure out how far those investigations have gone.
Still, the civil rights group says the effort is a violation of privacy laws that limit the secret gathering of intelligence. "It’s one thing for the FBI to say to a community group, ‘We’re going to come and meet you to establish ties,'" ACLU national security Director Hina Shamsi tells the Post. “But it's a very dangerous way to proceed to collect intelligence under the guise of community outreach."
FBI officials say the law lets them keep information relevant to their mission in certain circumstances, and they note the community outreach program is part of a large post-9/11 program that's aimed in part at protecting the civil rights of American Muslims.
A feeble month for legal jobs
Job generation may be picking up in the U.S. economy, but little of the new employment is coming from law firms or government legal offices.
The Labor Department said this morning that the private sector added 140,000 new jobs in November, as retailers, health care companies and the leisure and hospitality industries took a healthy number of new workers onto their payrolls. The broader sector of professional and business services also hired at an encouraging pace, adding a net 33,000 new jobs. But legal services? A paltry increase of just 100 new workers. That's a quarter of the number of new legal jobs created in October. And at 1,113,000, total legal employment is still a good deal less than the 1,116,100 level it was at a year ago.
With several industry surveys anecdotal evidence of higher corporate spending on legal services in recent weeks, it's hard to say what's producing the weaker Bureau of Labor Statistics data, though firms and their clients have said they're trying to do more with less. We know state and local courts and government legal offices have been hit by the wave of budget cutting affecting public employees everywhere. Last month, the total number of state non-teaching jobs continued to fall, by 6,400, and local governments cut a net 4,700 non-teaching jobs. Some of them may have been lawyers and clerks.
Defense funding bill would give military say over terror
The National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 would make the government's treatment of terrorism detainees less accountable to courts, and even law enforcement officials are arguing it's too much of a good thing.
That's not exactly how the Obama administration would describe its position, but it would be the end result of a small provision in the bill that has backing from both Republicans and Democrats. The bill would require that suspects arrested on U.S. soil be turned over to military custody if they have ties to al Qaeda or are accused of plotting terrorism here, the Hill reports. FBI Director Robert Mueller this week voiced opposition to the measure for giving the Pentagon more counterterror clout domestically than the bureau, while even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says it would hurt counterterrorism efforts. And President Barack Obama has promised to veto it.
Late Thursday, senators seemed to reach a compromise. After one amendment cutting the measure was defeated earlier in the day, a second amendment proposed by Democrat Dianne Feinstein appeared to gain traction. It would state that nothing else in the bill would change existing law governing the detention of American citizens, legal non-U.S. residents or people captured here. But it wasn't clear whether that was enough of a change for the White House. The reason, the Hill explains, is that Republican bill sponsors and even Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, argue U.S. law currently allows citizens to be held indefinitely by the military. And that, as Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin noted, leaves an actual verdict on the bill to the judiciary. "The Supreme Court will decide who can be detained," he said. "The Senate will not."
Summary Judgments for Dec. 1
Summary Judgments for Nov. 30
Summary Judgments for Nov. 29
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