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SCOTUS Affirms 7th Circuit's Opinion in Sandifer

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on January 29, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Sandifer, et al. v. United States Steel Corp., a case originating in the Seventh Circuit. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the Seventh Circuit's decision.

As the Court's most outspoken Originalist, it comes as no surprise that Justice Scalia authored the opinion of the Court which turned on statutory construction, which all Justices joined, with Justice Sotomayor's exception to one footnote.

Sandifer, et al. v. United States Steel Corp., -- Background

Clifton Sandifer, and other coworkers, are unionized employees at the United States Steel Corporation, a steelmaking facility. As part of their work, they wear 12 items: fire-retardant jacket, hood, hardhat, pants, snood, leggings, gloves, wristlet, boots, earplugs, safety glasses and a respirator (as needed). They initiated an action in District Court for the Northern District of Indiana seeking backpay, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, for time donning and doffing protective gear.

Sandifer, et al. v. United States Steel Corp., -- Procedural History

Sandifer argued that the time spent donning and doffing was compensable under the FLSA, while United States Steel asserted that the time was noncompensable under 29 U.S.C. § 203(o), which effectively leaves the determination of compensability to the collective-bargaining process. Here, the collective bargaining agreement did not provide that time donning and doffing was compensable.

Finding that donning and doffing the protective gear was not "changing clothes" under the statute, the district court granted U.S. Steel's motion for summary judgment. The court also noted that even if three items -- the glasses, earplugs and respirator -- were not clothes, the amount of time putting them on and off was de minimus and not compensable. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Sandifer, et al. v. United States Steel Corp., -- SCOTUS Analysis

First the Court had to define "clothes" and Justice Scalia determined that for § 203(o) to retain any meaning, "clothes" should be defined as "items that are integral to job performance." Next, he determined that "changing" included time spent altering -- not just substituting -- one's dress.

Finding that the facts of this case qualified as donning and doffing that would otherwise be compensable, Petitioners were nonetheless not entitled to backpay because "[t]he object of §203(o) is to permit collective bargaining over the compensability of clothes-changing time and to promote the predictability achieved through mutually beneficial negotiation."

The Court also rejected the de minimus standard of the lower courts, and instead took a holistic approach and looked to whether the time spent putting on compensable equipment took the majority of time or not.

Sandifer, et al. v. United States Steel Corp., -- Repercussions

The Seventh Circuit recently remanded a case for trial that had to do with donning and doffing, though the legal issues in the case related to OSHA, showering, and the employees are non-unionized. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how the Court's decision in Sandifer affects the outcome.

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