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Court applies restrictive interpretation to Worker Adjustment & Retraining Notification Act, denying jurisdiction

In this class action suit, Morton v. Vanderbilt University, the plaintiffs attempted to join two separate classes of employees in order to form a class of employees large enough to qualify for protection under the WARN Act, which imposes minor duties of notice and re-training in the event of significant lay-offs.  The plaintiffs' original suit on behalf of terminated employees did not involve a large enough number of workers to qualify as a "mass layoff," so they attempted to join a second group of employees.  The latter group were advised 60 days after the first group that they would be terminated 60 days later: they were paid but told not to come to work during the interim.  (In other words, the University apparently planned the lay-off timing so that it could avoid the retraining and notice requirements of the act by delaying wage cessation of one half of the involved employees for 30 days beyond the 90-day class limitation.)

Citing the time lapse, the Sixth Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs could not utilize the WARN Act to protect any of the employees, because there were more than 90 days between termination dates.  It reached this conclusion despite the fact that both groups of employees were "instructed to clean out their work stations, return all University property, including ID badges, instructed to leave the campus and told not to return."  Because the University paid the latter group's wages for 60 days of non-work, the Court held that they were not part of a "mass lay off" under the Act.  In essence, it rewarded the University for gamesmanship and allowed it to avoid the public policy obligations of re-training adopted by Congress.  Because the second group of employees was given notice of lay-off and pay, the first group could be denied both.  Vanderbilt alums should be proud.

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