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Biden Judge Upholds Law Helping Fast Food Industry Workers

Lady Justice
News & Analysis

Judge Alison Nathan, nominated by President Biden to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote a unanimous opinion upholding a New York city law that provides protection against arbitrary discharges and other harmful corporate action for workers in the fast food industry.  The January 2024 decision was in Restaurant Law Center v City of New York.


What is this case about?

In 2020, New York City enacted a law that provided “additional protections for workers in the fast food industry.” Specifically, the law prohibits employers from firing or reducing the hours of hourly wage workers “without notice or reason in the absence of egregious misconduct” and gives workers the option to arbitrate claims that the corporations violated the law.

The fast food industry objected and filed a lawsuit contending that the local law violates federal law and the Constitution. In particular, they asserted that the federal National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) pre-empts the field of providing protections for workers other than anti-discrimination provisions and that state and local laws like New York’s are thus invalid. They also claimed that the New York law discriminated against out-of-state businesses.

After discovery, a  federal district court ruled  for the city and against the fast food industry on motions for summary judgment, without a trial. The fast food industry appealed to the Second Circuit.


How Did Judge Nathan and the Second Circuit  Rule and Why is it Important?

 Judge Nathan wrote a unanimous opinion that affirmed the lower court and upheld the New York law helping fast food workers. She explained that the NLRA does not pre-empt the city law because that recent law establishes new labor standards that “regulate the substance” of fast food workers’ rights. The NLRA, on the other hand, regulates the “process” rights of workers “to organize and bargain collectively,” and it thus does not prevent a state or local government from establishing “substantive” rights for employees. The NLRA, she went on, “leaves undisturbed states’ broad police powers to regulate substantive labor standards,” as in this case.

Judge Nathan also rejected the assertion that the New York law discriminates against out-of-state businesses and could thus violate the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.  She explained that the law “applies to all fast-food chains” with 30 or more locations, whether headquartered in New York or not, and thus “plainly” does not “discriminate against interstate commerce.”

Judge Nathan’s decision is obviously important to protecting fast food workers in New York City from arbitrary and wrongful conduct by their employers. It also helps reinforce the established principle that states and cities can provide protections for workers’ rights that go beyond those offered by federal law. It also serves as an example of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Nathan to our federal courts.