Eleventh Circuit Hears Challenge to Alabama Wage Law

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By Chris Marr

An Alabama law that bans cities from enacting minimum wage ordinances is racially discriminatory, advocates will assert today in front of the Eleventh Circuit.

The state law was passed in 2016, days before an ordinance was to take effect in Birmingham, a majority-black city, setting a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, the NAACP, and fast-food workers are among those alleging in the lawsuit that the state law was racially motivated.

The law effectively “transfers all control to legislators elected by the statewide majority-white electorate” and takes away the power of local officials in majority-black cities, opponents of the measure argued in a June 2017 brief to the appeals court. They allege the law violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and the non-discrimination provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The Birmingham effort is part of a larger minimum wage movement among low-wage workers globally, including Fight for $15.

The Alabama case might be the only one of its kind at the moment alleging racial motivations behind a state legislature’s pre-emption of local wage ordinances, Laura Huizar of the National Employment Law Project, said. The group supported the Birmingham effort to raise the minimum wage, and it filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Although it’s “a difficult case to make,” Huizar told Bloomberg Law on April 12, “the argument that the Birmingham case is making is a powerful one.”

Trial Judge Found ‘Fatal Flaws’

A judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama dismissed the case in February 2017, finding what he described as several “fatal flaws” in the allegations. The lawsuit named the wrong defendants, failed to state a claim under the Voting Rights Act, and fell short of proving the law was motivated by intentional racial bias, the trial court said.

Attorneys handling the appeal didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

The allegations of racial bias aren’t fair or accurate, the attorney general’s office said in 2017, following the trial court’s decision. Other state laws pre-empting local wage ordinances have been upheld as constitutional, and they benefit the economy by providing uniform wage laws statewide, the AG’s office said at the time.

At the NELP’s latest count, 25 states have laws pre-empting local wage ordinances, Huizar said.

The Alabama attorney general’s office is representing the state. Barbara J. Chisholm of Altshuler Berzon LLP in San Francisco is representing the plaintiffs.

The case is Lewis v. Governor of Alabama, 11th Cir., No. 17-11009, oral arguments 4/13/18

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