Oral arguments are slated to begin this week in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as part of the latest stage of a prolonged legal battle over Alabama’s minimum wage law.
The focus of the case is the Alabama Uniform Minimum Wage and Right-to-Work Act, which was passed by the state Legislature in 2016, quashing an attempt by Birmingham’s city government to raise its minimum wage from the federal minimum of $7.25 to $10.10. The act gives that authority exclusively to the state — meaning that raising the minimum wage above the federal level can only be done by an act of the Legislature.
Plaintiffs in the case, which include several Democratic state legislators, the Alabama NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries, allege that the law was racially motivated; state Attorney General Steve Marshall has argued, instead, that the state law has no racial animus and was based on purely economic factors.
Birmingham Votes to Increase Wages
In August 2015, The Birmingham City Council voted to increase minimum wage in the city incrementally — first to $8.50 by July 2016, then to $10.10 by July 2017. Seven members of the council — Lashunda Scales, Kim Rafferty, William Parker, Johnathan Austin, Jay Roberson, Steven Hoyt and Marcus Lundy — voted in favor of the bill. Council President Valerie Abbott abstained due to her concern about “those unintended consequences that we often suffer when we rush to do something to make people happy.”
What followed was something of a race, as the Alabama Legislature began fast-tracking a bill blocking cities and counties from setting their own minimum wages. The Birmingham City Council attempted to supercede this with a Feb. 23, 2016, ordinance immediately raising Birmingham’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. A day later, then-Gov. Robert Bentley signed the state bill into law, effectively negating the city’s ordinance.
One of the sponsors of the state bill was Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook, who argued that Birmingham’s minimum wage hike would set a precedent that could stymie job growth in the state and punish small business owners.
“People think it’s me trying to keep poor people down,” Faulkner told Weld for Birmingham shortly after the bill passed the state House. “I’m not setting the minimum wage, I’m just trying to keep every individual city in the state of Alabama from giving (business owners) three weeks’ notice about increasing their labor costs.”
Two months after the state law took effect, the Alabama NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries filed suit in federal court alongside two Birmingham minimum wage workers, Marnika Lewis and Antoin Adams, claiming that the bill was racially motivated and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
As the case progressed, the suit expanded, adding state Reps. Merika Coleman, John Rogers, Juandalynn Givan, Louise Alexander and Mary Moore, along with then-Rep. Oliver Robinson; state Sens. Priscilla Dunn and Rodger Smitherman; and community activist William Muhammad to the list of plaintiffs.
The list of defendants initially included Bentley and then-Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, but later expanded to include the state of Alabama, the city of Birmingham, and then-Mayor William A. Bell. The latter two were added, according to the suit, because they had “not acted to enforce (the minimum wage ordinance).” The suit seeks to compel the city to do so.
Birmingham, for its part, has argued that it should not be named in the suit.
In an April 2019 brief filed by the city, the city’s lawyer argued that it has taken “a neutral position” on the issue and simply does not enforce its own ordinance.
“It is the City of Birmingham’s right, not the Plaintiffs-Appellants right, to determine if it will challenge, initiate a civil action concerning State Act 2016-18 or enforce its own nullified ordinance regardless of if it allegedly violates the rights of Birmingham citizens,” the brief reads.
The lawsuit initially was dismissed in February 2017, with U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor arguing that racial animus could not be a factor in the state’s passage of the law because it applied to everyone throughout the state. A month later, the plaintiffs appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and last July, a three-judge panel reversed the dismissal of the claim against the attorney general of Alabama, though it affirmed the dismissal “of all other claims and all other defendants” — including the city of Birmingham.
Then, in January, the court announced it would rehear arguments on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, fully reversing the previous ruling.
Now, instead of a panel of three judges, the motion to dismiss the lawsuit will be considered by the full court. That decision is expected later this year; oral arguments will begin Tuesday.