WASHINGTON – The US Supreme Court ruled Friday on a landmark case out of Texas. Harrington v. Kimberly-Clark Corporation laid down new precedent for businesses to maximize efficiency by avoiding extraneous remuneration to employees.
The US high federal court upheld a successful appeal that overturned the March 2011 ruling of the US District Court for the Northern District in Texas, a case which was billed as an attack on not only workers’ rights, but human rights in general. The district court found in favor of Irving resident John Harrington who sued the Kimberly-Clark Corporation for whom he had been employed as a custodian for the Scott Tissue brand home offices section. Harrington’s employment was terminated in July of 2010 after management repeatedly cited the single father for abandoning his duties for minutes at a time on a regular basis.
The District Court ruled in favor of Harrington in a trial that saw the former employee break down multiple times, recalling the humiliation of his termination and the details of the case being released publicly.
Harrington’s perceived truancy was the result of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a condition that causes sufferers to have unexpected, traumatic, debilitating bowel movements. He would often have no choice but to retire to the lavatory for five to ten minutes at a time.
The initial judgement awarded damages for lost pay, attorney fees, and emotional distress, as well as punitive damages. Harrington was set to collect a load of over $850,000. However, Kimberly-Clark immediately filed an appeal in April 2011, seeking to recoup $500,000 in punitive damages, claiming that the US Constitution does not grant American workers the right to defecate on company time.
In August of 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit sided with Kimberly-Clark confirming that the right to defecation breaks is not specified in the Constitution or any state law, thus, Harrington was not to be paid for this time. In a twist, the wrongful termination verdict and punitive damages were not reversed, but Kimberly-Clark was off the hook for lost pay amounting to just under $100,000.
Harrington maintained in an interview with ESPN that human bodily functions are unavoidable, and under labor laws, breaks of up to 20 minutes must be counted as work hours.
Kimberly-Clark’s case involved the frequency of Harrington’s breaks, and detailed records were kept after initial warnings, records Harrington’s attorney admitted as stipulation, meaning the accuracy of the logs was not in question.
Some days, Harrington would use the bathroom more than five times, with the maximum dropped time amounting to up to 38 minutes in one day in July of 2010, shortly before his termination.
After the Appellate Court ruling reversed portions of the District Court’s initial decision, Harrington appealed to the US Supreme Court, which heard the case this month. The court unanimously squashed Harrington’s appeal, concluding in the opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts that defecation, being, “less urgent than urination, and easier to plan and manage,” is not a reason for an employee to, “lose his [or her] place on the floor.”
In the only registered concurrence, penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Justice confirmed that, “A responsible adult, having time after waking up, depending, rightfully, on the conditions of his sleeping arrangement, with breakfast coming before one leaves for the day, in theory, has time between waking and shift, at least fifteen minutes at most, in which for one, a responsible adult, can at least prepare for the three morning hours before lounge time in which one should be able to work free of digestive restrictions by which, after morning hours conclude, one will have at least half an hour in which to complete this business. After this time, any reasonable adult should ensure their conditions forthcoming of digestive conditions be dealt with in a manner that conditions them to the conditions of this condition, allowing for four hours of uninterrupted
During the reading of Justice Kennedy’s concurrence, and previously during the reading of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion, Justices Alito and Sotomayor, respectively, were seen stepping out of chambers for eight and eleven minutes respectively.
The ruling effectively establishes that using the restroom during work hours for purposes of passing solid waste is not protected by American labor standards, and employees requiring time for defecation must do so by applying vacation time, or for the eighty-eight percent of Americans who work part-time, by clocking out.