Legal Briefing: A Roundup of Labor-Related News

A daily look at legal news and the business of law:

Labor Day isn't just about rounding out the summer season with a nice three-day weekend, of course. It's a "national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country", notes the Labor Department, and has been a national holiday for over 100 years. In that vein, here's a roundup of recent labor-oriented legal news:

In just the past few days the Labor Department has taken several workplace-safety enforcement actions, including fining an Alabama lumber company $440,000 after one employee died and another was critically injured; fining a Pennsylvania foundry $550,000 for exposing workers to lead and other toxins; fining two Alabama manufacturing plants $3 million for exposing workers to amputation hazards and other issues; and fining a Houston manufacturing plant $1.2 million for hiding work-related injuries and illnesses.

The Chicago Tribune has a lawsuit story on the theme that workplaces aren't safe, and not all hazards are obvious or easily avoided. The Tribune reports that BASF (BASFY) is appealing the $30 million verdict awarded to Geradro Solis, a microwave-popcorn factory worker whose lungs were destroyed by a chemical used to give the popcorn its buttery flavor. Solis, a father of three, worked in popcorn and popcorn flavoring factories since 1987 and developed the appropriately named disease obliterans, which obliterated 75% of his lungs.

BASF knew in 1993 from its own experiment that the chemical destroyed rats' lungs. Despite BASF's knowledge that the chemical could be dangerous, the company BASF didn't do adequate follow-up testing, didn't warn its workers and didn't recommend they wear protective gear when dealing with the chemical, Solis told the jury.

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Bloomberg has a story that challenges the adage "an honest day's pay for an honest day's work." Dick's Sporting Goods (DKS) has been sued for not paying all wages due its employees. According to the employees, not only did Dick's deny them the mandatory time-and-a-half for overtime but it also forced them to work off-the-clock without any pay at all. Nor is Dick's alone. In August, the U.S. Labor Department recovered $433,000 in wages for Walt Disney (DIS) employees, $1 million in back wages and interest for a computer consulting company's employees, $870,000 in back wages for employees of a Florida timeshare company and $137,000 in back wages for employees of a Houston construction company.

And a seemingly never-ending story underscores the point that gender still matters in the workplace. Nine years ago, women employees sued Wal-Mart (WMT) for sex discrimination in a case that has grown to be the largest class action ever. Although Wal-Mart has settled sex discrimination claims before,(and cases alleging it didn't pay for work done, a la Dick's Sporting Goods, including not paying back pay when due), Wal-Mart has fought this case hard. So hard, in fact, that the main issue litigated hasn't been the claims of sex discrimination but whether or not the women can sue as a single class. That stage of the case is nearing an end game. A couple of weeks ago, Wal-Mart asked the Supreme Court to wipe out the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the class is appropriate. No word yet on whether the high court will take the case.

If the women win on class certification, either because the Supreme Court doesn't hear the appeal or because it rules for them, trial will likely come in 2012. Or perhaps even more likely, Wal-Mart will settle. As Novartis (NVS) recently learned, taking sex discrimination cases to trial can be expensive. (Of course, Wal-Mart can copy Novartis and settle after losing big at trial.)

If Wal-Mart wins the appeal, the women will have to decide whether to try to fashion smaller classes and keep going, bring individual claims and keep going or just settle, in which case all the settlement power will be on Wal-Mart's side. As a result, all eyes are on the Supreme Court now.

Happy Labor Day everyone. May the coming year bring all of you jobs if you want them. And for those who have jobs, may you keep them and may your employers treat you fairly.