Full 11th Circuit Tosses Fight Over Alabama Wage Limits

(CN) – The en banc 11th Circuit on Friday struck down two workers’ challenge to an Alabama law that forbids cities and counties from raising the minimum wage.

A 7-5 majority ruled that the plaintiff workers did not have standing to sue the Alabama Attorney General’s Office over the 2016 law, which prohibits local governments from raising the minimum wage beyond what’s required under state or federal law.

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, home of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

According to the majority opinion, the workers were barking up the wrong tree by naming the attorney general as a defendant, in part because the law at issue does not give him express enforcement authority. The workers did not show that their damages from lower wages were directly tied to the Attorney General’s Office, U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom wrote for the majority.

The Alabama legal saga has played out amid mounting tension nationwide between progressive wage policy advocates and state legislatures that have sought to prevent local control of employment law. According to a July report from National Employment Law Project, an employee rights advocate, at least 12 cities and counties stretching from Florida to Wisconsin passed local minimum wage laws only to have them invalidated by state laws.

Newsom, an appointee of President Donald Trump, described the Alabama case as having arisen from a “political tug of war” between the state and its most populous city, Birmingham.

Birmingham’s city council formally called on the Republican-led Legislature to raise the minimum wage in April 2015. Gaining little traction in the state house, the city passed an ordinance that eventually raised the rate to $10.10 an hour for Birmingham employees.

State Representative David Faulkner, hailing from a Birmingham suburb, promptly introduced a bill to quash the minimum-wage hike. The final incarnation, known as the Alabama Uniform Minimum Wage and Right to Work Act, was passed in February 2016. In effect, it barred cities and counties from raising Alabamans’ minimum wage beyond the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. Alabama has no state minimum wage in place.

Faulkner told local media that he believed that setting a statewide standard for minimum wage would protect low-paying jobs and prevent companies from reducing their work force in cities with higher minimum wages.

Marnika Lewis and Antoin Adams saw it as a less benevolent measure. Joined by the NAACP and other advocates, the two workers sued, arguing that Alabama’s minimum wage preemption disproportionately affects black workers and perpetuates the state’s history of “maintaining white control over local black majorities.”

“[The Alabama minimum wage law] prohibits the majority-black electorate of the City of Birmingham from exercising their electoral power over local government and the right to municipal self-government,” the lawsuit alleged. It listed counts for violations of the equal protection clause, voting rights infringement and other constitutional violations.

The 11th Circuit majority on Friday upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the case.

“To summarize, we hold that plaintiffs lack … standing to bring their equal-protection claim against the Alabama Attorney General because they have failed to establish that their injuries (while real and cognizable) are fairly traceable to the Attorney General’s conduct or that those injuries would be redressed by a decision in their favor,” Newsom wrote. (Parentheses in original.)

The judge rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the Office of the Attorney General was a proper defendant because it had inherent power to enforce the state law and failed to inform the Legislature of the law’s unconstitutionality.

“The fact that the Act itself doesn’t contemplate enforcement by the Attorney General counts heavily against plaintiffs’ traceability argument,” he reasoned.

In a dissenting opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote the majority decision framed the workers’ case incorrectly, as a wage law matter as opposed to a claim of constitutional rights violations.

“The majority asks only whether Ms. Lewis and Mr. Adams can obtain an ultimate economic benefit—a $10.10 minimum hourly wage—by suing the Attorney General.  But the analysis should also address whether the plaintiffs’ other alleged injury—being denied equal treatment by the Act—is traceable and redressable through this lawsuit,” the Barack Obama appointee explained.

Jordan’s dissent also attacked the majority’s suggestion that the workers could have taken a more legally tenable route if they had sued their employers, and then litigated the issue of constitutionality, with the attorney general entering the case as an intervenor.

“Why dismiss this action for failing to present a justiciable case or controversy when, as even the majority acknowledges, the same parties will ultimately be fighting the same controversy if employees are forced to sue their employers?” Jordan asked.

The case was decided before the full court, after the 11th Circuit voted out a prior decision from a three-judge panel.

Alabama is not alone in passing a law to block local governments from taking minimum wage matters into their own hands. According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than 20 other states have laws that generally preempt local governments from raising minimum wage.

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