Employment Law Daily Alabama state vs. city minimum wage battle, heavily impacting blacks, goes to full Eleventh Circuit
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Friday, February 1, 2019

Alabama state vs. city minimum wage battle, heavily impacting blacks, goes to full Eleventh Circuit

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The Eleventh Circuit has agreed to rehear en banc claims that an Alabama law mandating a uniform minimum wage throughout the state and preempting local laws had the purpose and effect of discriminating against Birmingham’s black citizens.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on January 30 granted rehearing en banc of—and accordingly vacated—a panel decision that found employees in Birmingham, Alabama, who alleged that the state’s Minimum Wage Act had the purpose and effect of discriminating against the city’s black citizens in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, stated a plausible claim. The panel’s July 2018 ruling, in Lewis v. Governor of Alabama, had reversed the dismissal of that claim by a district court.

The employees filed their lawsuit after Governor Robert Bentley signed the Minimum Wage and Right-to-Work Act, which mandated a uniform minimum wage throughout the state, currently sitting at $7.25 per hour, and preempting all local labor and employment regulation. The move came in response to a city ordinance raising the minimum wage to more than $10 per hour.

Dueling legislation. In April 2015, the Birmingham city council passed a resolution calling on the Alabama legislature to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour. The legislature refused, so the city council adopted its own law to raise the minimum wage in two steps, first to $8.50 per hour and then to $10.10 in 2017.

A week later, a white state representative from a neighboring, mostly white community introduced a bill in the state house of representatives with the aim of quashing it. A second iteration of that bill progressed and ultimately won the approval of a majority of the House in February 2016 and quickly made its way to the Senate floor.

In the meantime, the Birmingham city council pushed forward with implementing its own minimum wage law and adopted a new ordinance that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour immediately. One day after it went into effect, the Alabama Senate approved the Minimum Wage Act, which mandated a uniform minimum wage throughout the state, currently $7.25 per hour, and preempting all local labor and employment regulation.

No black senators or house members supported the Act. Governor Bentley signed it into law in less than two hours.

Black residents file suit. A few months later, the plaintiffs, Birmingham residents who earn less than $10.10 per hour, along with public interest groups, sued the state governor and attorney general, claiming racial discrimination under the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, as well as section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss and the plaintiffs appealed.

On the merits, the appeals court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the employees’ claim that the Minimum Wage Act purposely discriminated against the city’s black citizens. In order to prevail on this equal protection challenge, the plaintiffs were required to “prove both discriminatory impact and discriminatory intent or purpose.”

Discriminatory impact. Among the impact evidence cited by the court was that the Minimum Wage Act denied 37 percent of the city’s black wage workers a higher wage, compared to only 27 percent of white workers. This was in addition to the fact that black wage workers earn, on average, $1.41 less per hour than their white counterparts in the city and $2.12 less than their counterparts statewide. Thus, the court found it “plausible” that the Act would bear more heavily on black workers,

Other issues. There were other important issues in the case, including whether the Minimum Wage Act had an invidious purpose, whether the lower court recklessly used the “clearest proof” standard, standing to sue, and Eleventh Amendment immunity (see, “11th Cir.: Black employees get renewed chance to prove state minimum wage law was discriminatory,” July 25, 2018).

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