New study analyzes NC Supreme Court’s rulings in favor of workers, corporations

By: - July 17, 2023 6:52 am

NC Supreme Court (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

Last year, the North Carolina Supreme Court voted in favor of Doris Cunningham, a 59-year-old woman who was injured on the job at Goodyear Tire & Rubber, where she’d worked for almost 20 years. In 2014, she’d hurt her back so badly trying to move a tire that she couldn’t get out of bed the next day. Her employer had argued Cunningham hadn’t been eligible for disability benefits because she hadn’t followed state law, which required her to file a claim within two years of her injury. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that Cunningham was entitled to her disability benefits.

When the state Supreme Court issued its Cunningham ruling, Democrats held a majority. Since then, the court has flipped political ideology, with Republicans now holding five seats to Democrats’ two.

A new report from the group People’s Parity Project Action warns that rulings like Cunningham v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. are in jeopardy, because of the North Carolina’s Supreme Court’s rightward shift.

Titled “The People v. Corporate America,” the report examines the North Carolina Supreme Court’s impact on workers and consumers — or, put another way, its impact in protecting corporations’ interests.

The group looked at every state Supreme Court ruling between 2008 and 2022 in which a business or employer was on one side of a case and an individual was on the other. Of those 108 cases, most were filed by injured people suing a corporation, their employer or a healthcare provider.

The court ruled in favor of corporations just over half the time — but corporations tended to win more often when conservative justices had more seats on the bench.

The present

Two Republican judges dissented in the Cunningham case (a third recused himself), a potential harbinger of rulings to come now that Republicans have control of the court.

The report found that the three Republican judges elected to the high court in 2020 are reliable votes for corporations. Justice Tamara Barringer has ruled in favor of employers or corporations in 15 of 19 cases, or 75% of the time; Justice Phil Berger, Jr. has ruled in favor of corporations of employers in 87% of considered cases. Chief Justice Paul Newby, elected to the Supreme Court’s top position in 2020, ruled in favor of corporations in 89% of cases.

Before he became chief justice but still on the court as an associate justice, Newby ruled in favor of injured people in 56% of cases in 2008 and 2009, including 15 unanimous decisions. In 2021 and 2022, he joined two unanimous decisions, the only times he ruled against corporations.

All three of those justices voted in lockstep against injured workers and consumers, the report found, ruling against injured people in 11 of the 15 cases in 2021 and 2022 in which all three of the justices participated.

The past

From 2013 to 2016, when conservatives had a majority of seats, the high court ruled in favor of corporations in almost two-thirds of cases. One of those suits was Bumpers v. Community Bank of North Virginia. That case involved a bank that charged consumers a fee for a “discount” interest rate on a loan. Customers had argued the bank had violated state law prohibiting “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”

The high court disagreed in the 2013 ruling, which Newby authored.

“In most cases, there is nothing unfair or deceptive about freely entering a transaction on the open market,” Newby wrote, finding that the “Plaintiffs entered into their loan transactions freely and without any compulsion.”

In 2021 and 2022, by contrast, when Democrats controlled the court, injured people prevailed in 55% of decisions, according to the report.

A graph from the group, People’s Parity Project Action showing the ways the North Carolina Supreme Court’s favorable rulings to employers and corporations have ebbed and flowed since 2008.

A possible cause

The report draws a connection between pro-corporate rulings to the repeal of the public financing of Supreme Court elections and reintroduction of partisan elections for Supreme Court seats in 2018.  From 2008 to 2010, the court ruled on behalf of injured people about 60% of the time, according to the analysis. From 2019 to 2020, it was about half the time.

From 2004 to 2012, North Carolina gave appellate court candidates public funds if they raised a certain amount of small contributions, money that allowed candidates to avoid seeking big checks from corporations and lawyers. Republican legislators defunded that program in 2012, then repealed it in 2013.

Then-Justice Paul Newby was up for reelection in 2012, when the public financing program was struggling. Newby and his opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Samuel Ervin IV (who would later join the high court) each received public finance dollars, but Newby also received a surge in funding from outside interests, including a corporate-funded super PAC, per the report.

Eliminating public financing, the report argues, opened the door for corporate interests to spend heavily to ensure more conservative judges are elected who will look favorably upon their interests.

Public financing aside, the report notes that corporations started losing a lot more often after voters elected a progressive Supreme Court majority in 2016. But that could change now, as the current Republican majority includes former prosecutors (like Newby) and corporate lawyers (like Justice Richard Dietz).

“The legislature’s chosen system of expensive, partisan elections has been good for Republican candidates and their corporate campaign donors,” the report reads. “It has resulted in a high court majority composed of former prosecutors and corporate attorneys. Except for [Justice Anita] Earls, not one of the current justices has experience representing workers or working as public defenders. This court is now a much tougher venue for injured people.”

Suggestions for the future

The report has several suggestions for aggrieved employees and individuals seeking justice from employers and corporations. For one, it recommends pressuring the governor to appoint judges who bring more professional diversity to their job on the bench. It points out that Gov. Roy Cooper has done this, appointing judges like Allison Riggs and Valene McMasters, who have experience representing marginalized North Carolinians. The report encourages advocates to keep up the pressure, noting that Newby could reach the mandatory retirement age in a few years (assuming Republican lawmakers don’t extend that age this session).

It also encourages organizations to educate the public to cut through ads and other messaging funded by corporate interests, and implored supporters to keep a close eye on the legislature’s efforts to further control the courts, recalling Rev. William Barber’s “Moral Monday” movement and his push for a renewed commitment to protect the most vulnerable residents of North Carolina.

Restoring public financing of judicial races would go a long way, too, the report contends. That’s a long shot,  however, as Democrats in the legislature have introduced bills to do that, but Republicans haven’t been interested in advancing them. (Republicans have supermajorities in the House and Senate.)

But the key, the report says, is for voters to not leave their ballots blank in the section for judicial candidates.

“The most important thing voters can do to hold the court accountable is to encourage other voters to turn out and cast their ballot for judges, instead of skipping the bottom of the ballot,” the report reads. “In every election, there are tens of thousands of voters who don’t vote for judges.”

Click here to read the report.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.