Since our last annual United States Supreme Court roundup article, the Court issued four decisions that may affect California employers. We summarize these rulings below.
Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru
The First Amendment generally prohibits government interference in “matters of church government,” including the selection of individuals who perform certain key functions. In 2012, the Court held that the First Amendment’s religion clauses barred courts from adjudicating employment discrimination claims from employees considered “ministers” within churches and religious institutions.
In Morrissey-Berru, the Court decided whether the “ministerial exception” applied to two Catholic teachers suing their employer-schools for discrimination. Although the teachers incorporated religious instruction in their classes, they did not carry the title of “minister” or have any religious training or background. The Court determined that the title of “minister” is not required for the ministerial exception to apply. The key factor in determining whether a position falls within the “ministerial exception” is whether the employee performs “vital religious duties.” Here, the teachers qualified for the exception because they played a vital role in carrying out the school’s mission by educating students in their faith.
The Court’s focus on duties broadens the class of employees covered by the ministerial exception. Religious employers should ensure that job descriptions and employment agreements clearly state the important religious functions the employee will perform.
Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) requires employers to provide health insurance with preventive coverage that includes contraceptive services for women. However, certain religious employers may request an exemption to that requirement if they object to participating in the provision of contraception to their employees.
In 2017, the Trump administration promulgated rules that expanded the scope of the ACA’s religious exemption, and added an exemption for employers with “sincerely held moral objections” to the contraceptive-coverage mandate.
In response to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania challenge to the administration’s actions, the Court ruled that the new rules were valid. As a result, employers with sincerely held moral or religious beliefs against providing contraception may modify their healthcare plans accordingly.
Van Buren v. United States
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (“CFAA”) imposes criminal penalties on an individual who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access” to obtain information. The term “exceeds authorized access” means “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain… information in the computer that the user is not entitled so to obtain[.]” The Court wrestled with the meaning of the word “so” in the statute.
The federal government charged former police sergeant Nathan Van Buren with a felony violation of the CFAA after he improperly obtained license plate information from a law enforcement computer database in exchange for money from an FBI informant. The parties agreed that Van Buren was “entitled to obtain” license plate information from the law enforcement computer database, but disagreed whether, under the CFAA, he “exceed[ed] authorized access” to the database. Lower federal courts were divided on whether the clause “entitled so to obtain” prohibited individuals from obtaining information from locations in a computer that were off-limits to them (as Van Buren argued), or from misusing information they were otherwise authorized to access (as the government argued).
The Court held that the CFAA does not prohibit improper motives for obtaining computer information if an individual has authorized access to such information. Rather, an individual “exceeds authorized access” when he accesses a computer with authorization and then obtains information in areas of the computer that are off-limits to him. Even though Van Buren obtained information with an improper motive, he did not exceed authorized access because he was permitted to use the computer to obtain license plate information.
Employers generally have an interest in protecting their computer information from improper use (for example, to prevent departing employees from stealing computer information before going to work for a competitor). Due to the Court’s narrow interpretation, the focus of a CFAA inquiry is on whether the employee had authorized access to the areas of the computer system at issue, not on the employee’s motives for obtaining the information.
However, the Court’s decision does not prevent employers from disciplining employees who violate its computer access policies. Employers should update their policies and security protocols to define clearly which databases or areas of the network each employee is authorized to access. Additionally, in certain circumstances, improper access to or use of computer information may violate other laws, including HIPAA or the Defense of Trade Secrets Act.
California v. Texas
In 2010, Congress enacted the ACA, which required most Americans to purchase minimum health insurance coverage (the “individual mandate”) and imposed a monetary penalty if they did not do so. In 2017, Congress effectively eliminated the individual mandate by setting the penalty to $0. Several states, including Texas, brought suit claiming that eliminating the penalty rendered the entire ACA unconstitutional. Other states, including California, intervened to defend the ACA’s constitutionality.
However, the Court never reached the main issue in the case. A party must have a legal right to “stand” before a court and request a legal remedy for an injury (“standing”), because the Constitution only authorizes federal courts to adjudicate genuine “controversies.” In California v. Texas, the Court held that the plaintiffs lacked standing, reasoning that without a penalty attached to the ACA’s coverage mandate, the plaintiffs could not show any past or future injury connected to enforcing the mandate. Therefore, the ACA, including its requirements for health plans to include certain essential benefits and cover individuals with pre-existing conditions, remains in place.
So far, the Court has not agreed to hear any employment law cases during the 2021-2022 term, which begins in early October.