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Leeper v. Hamilton County Coal, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 26, 2019

Carl Leeper, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Hamilton County Coal, LLC, and Alliance Resource Partners, L.P., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued May 17, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 16-CV-250 - Nancy J. Rosenstengel, Chief Judge.

          Before Ripple, Manion, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          SYKES, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         A group of workers at an Illinois coal mine received some unwelcome news on February 5, 2016. Their employer, Hamilton County Coal, LLC, announced a "temporary layoff" with an expected end date of August 1, 2016. Carl Leeper, a full-time maintenance worker at the mine, responded with this class action under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (the "WARN Act" or "the Act"), which requires employers to give affected employees 60 days' notice before imposing a "mass layoff." 29 U.S.C. § 2102(a)(1). The Act defines a mass layoff as an event in which at least 33% of a site's full-time workforce suffers an "employment loss." Id. § 2101(a)(3)(B). The district court entered summary judgment for Hamilton because the work site did not experience a "mass layoff" as defined in the Act.

         We affirm. The record contains no evidence of a mass layoff. The term "employment loss" is defined as a permanent termination, a layoff exceeding six months, or an extended reduction of work hours. None of those events occurred here. Instead, Hamilton initiated a temporary layoff of under six months.

         I. Background

         Hamilton operates a coal mine near Dahlgren, Illinois.[1]On February 5, 2016, Leeper and 157 other full-time employees received a hand-delivered "Temporary Layoff Notice" on Hamilton letterhead. The notice announced that "due to operational considerations, " Hamilton was placing the workers "on temporary layoff for the period commencing on February 6, 2016 and ending on August 1, 2016." The notice invited them to return on that end date: "On August 1, 2016, you may return to your at-will employment with Hamilton County Coal." In the meantime, however, the laid-off workers would "not be employed by Hamilton County Coal" and were "free to pursue other endeavors."

         The employees also received a document entitled "Frequently Asked Questions Concerning the Temporary Layoffs/' which explained that "[a] temporary layoff is treated as a termination of employment for purposes of wages and benefits." It also provided information about health insurance, retirement accounts, and other benefits. Not long after Leeper and his coworkers received the notice, some mine workers began returning to work. Of the 158 notice recipients, 56 resumed their employment with full pay within six months.

         About a month after receiving the notice, Leeper filed this class-action suit alleging that Hamilton violated the WARN Act by failing to provide 60 days' notice before imposing a "mass layoff." § 2102(a)(1). The Act defines a "mass layoff" as "a reduction in force" that "results in an employment loss at the single site of employment during any 30-day period for ... at least 33 percent of the [full-time] employees ...; and at least 50 employees." § 2101(a)(3)(B). The Act lists three categories of "employment loss": "(A) an employment termination, other than a discharge for cause, voluntary departure, or retirement, (B) a layoff exceeding 6 months, or (C) a reduction in hours of work of more than 50 percent during each month of any 6-month period." 29 U.S.C. § 2101(a)(6).

         Leeper alleged two forms of employment loss. He first asserted that more than 33% of the mine's full-time workers suffered an "employment termination" within the meaning of § 2101(a)(6)(A). He later added an allegation that Hamilton reduced the "hours of work [by] more than 50 percent during each month of any 6-month period." § 2101(a)(6)(C).

         Ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, the district judge rejected Leeper's first theory that the mine workers experienced an employment termination within the meaning of the Act. Relying on regulatory guidance distinguishing an employment termination from a layoff, the judge placed this work stoppage in the latter category. And because the layoff did not exceed six months and 56 workers returned to full-time employment within that time, the workers hadn't suffered an employment loss and the WARN Act's 33% threshold was not met. See § 2101(a)(6)(B) (categorizing "a layoff exceeding 6 months" as an "employment loss") (emphasis added).

         Turning to Leeper's second argument, the judge framed the issue as whether a "layoff" under the Act "can simultaneously be considered a 'reduction in hours of work of more than 50 percent in each month of any 6-month period.'" If so, § 2101(a)(6)(B) would be superfluous because every layoff exceeding six months would already constitute a "reduction in hours" under § 2101(a)(6)(C). The judge concluded that subsections (B) and (C) describe distinct categories of work stoppages. This case involved a layoff, she held, and because it did not exceed six months, it was not covered by the Act. The judge entered final judgment for Hamilton. This appeal followed.

         II. ...


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