284 F. 613 (D.D.C. 1922), 3438, Children's Hospital of District of Columbia v. Adkins

Docket Nº:3438, 3467.
Citation:284 F. 613
Case Date:November 06, 1922
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

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284 F. 613 (D.D.C. 1922)



ADKINS et al., Minimum Wage Board.




Nos. 3438, 3467.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia.

November 6, 1922

Submitted February 14, 1921.

Smyth, Chief Justice, dissenting.

Appeal from the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.

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C. B. Ellis and Joseph W. Folk, both of Washington, D.C., for appellants.

F. H. Stephens, of Washington, D.C., and Felix Frankfurter, of Cambridge, Mass., for appellees.

VAN ORSDEL, Associate Justice.

These cases present the question of the constitutionality of the Minimum Wage Law of the District of Columbia. Act of Congress Sept. 19, 1918, 40 Stat. 960 (Comp. St. Ann. Supp. 1919, Secs. 3421 1/2a-3421 1/2w).

By the act in question, the commissioners of the District of Columbia were authorized to appoint a minimum wage board, composed of three members. This board is vested with power, after investigation as provided in the statute, to fix the minimum wages to be paid women employees in any occupation in the District of Columbia, where the board from its investigation is of opinion that women workers are receiving inadequate wages. The act also provides that, after a minimum wage has been fixed, any employer or agent, or any officer, director, or agent of any corporation, refusing to comply with the order of the board, shall be guilty of a criminal offense, and upon conviction punished by fine or imprisonment, or both.

By a further provision of the act, the decision of the board, fixing a minimum wage, is made final, and no appeal to the courts from such decision is allowed except upon error of law. The board is given authority to examine the books of every individual or corporation, employing women in the District of Columbia, to ascertain the names of women employees and the wages paid, a register of which every employer is required to keep. It is made a criminal offense for any employer or his agent to discharge or discriminate in any manner against any employee who serves or is about to serve on any conference called by the board, or who has testified or is about to testify at any conference, or any employee whom the employer believes may serve on any conference or may testify 'in any investigation or proceedings under or relative to this act.'

Section 13 of the act (Comp. St. Sec. 3421 1/2m) provides:

'That for any occupation in which only a minimum time-rate wage has been established, the board may issue to a woman whose earning capacity has been impaired by age or otherwise, a special license authorizing her employment at such wage less than such minimum time-rate wage as shall be fixed by the board and stated in the license.'

In case No. 3438, the Children's Hospital, a District of Columbia corporation, seeks to perpetually restrain the minimum wage board from enforcing an order requiring it to pay its women employees not less than $16.50 per week, or $71.50 per month. In case No. 3467, the

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appellant, Willie A. Lyons, was operating an elevator in the Congress Hotel in the city of Washington, at a wage of $35 per month and two meals per day, when the board issued an order forbidding any hotel keeper to employ a woman or minor girl 'at a rate of wages of less than 34 1/2 cents per hour, $16.50 per week, or $71.50 per month. ' It is to restrain the enforcement of this order that appellant Lyons filed her bill in the court below.

From decrees of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, dismissing the bills, these appeals are prosecuted.

We will not stop to analyze the records in these cases for the purpose of determining the sufficiency of the averments to sustain the prayers for extraordinary relief. The single question presented involves the power of Congress, in the light of the limitations of the Constitution of the United States, to enact this legislation. If the act is constitutional, unquestionably the averments are not sufficient to justify the interposition of equity; but any attempt to enforce an unconstitutional law, resulting in an invasion of property rights, is subject to equitable restraint. Truax v. Raich, 239 U.S. 33, 36 Sup.Ct. 7, 60 L.Ed. 131, L.R.A. 1916D, 545, Ann. Cas. 1917B, 283. The constitutionality of the act is assailed upon the theory that the power exerted extends to the regulation and limitation of the freedom of contract between private individuals, and that it is the initial step toward unlimited federal price-fixing legislation.

The act clearly was neither passed to meet a temporary emergency nor 'to tide over a passing trouble. ' Its interpretation may be pursued without reference to the modern rule of emergency resorted to in support of certain so-called war legislation; nor does it appear that any situation has arisen in the District of Columbia, in respect of women workers, which has become so 'publicly notorious' as to justify the inference of an emergency. True, Congress declared the purpose of the act to be 'to protect the women and minors of the District from conditions detrimental to their health and morals resulting from wages which are inadequate to maintain decent standards of living. ' It then undertakes to direct the interpretation of the act and forbids appeal to the courts, except upon questions of law. While statements of fact by a Legislature, as an inducement for the enactment of a law, are entitled to respect, they are by no means conclusive upon the courts; nor are the limitations upon interpretation and appeal, since the courts will have the last word in the event of any arbitrary action on the part of the board in carrying out the provisions of the act.

Another contention may be disposed of in a word. True, a number of states have enacted similar laws, and they have generally been upheld by the state courts, but that by no means forecloses consideration of the present case. In Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1, 35 Sup.Ct. 240, 59 L.Ed. 441, L.R.A. 1915C, 960, the court condemned an act making it a criminal offense for an employer to prevent, by contract, his employees joining labor unions, notwithstanding such laws existed in 13 states and the territory of Porto Rico.

We are here called upon to weigh the subject-matter of certain legislation

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in the balance of the Constitution, the general power of Congress to fix wage contracts between private individuals. If Congress may establish a minimum wage for women, it may establish a maximum wage, or it may name a fixed wage. If it may regulate wages for women, it may by the exercise of the same power establish the wages to be paid men. The power of Congress to fix wages between private individuals is either constitutional or unconstitutional. There is no leeway for legislative or judicial discretion. A fundamental principle is involved, and it does not lie in the courts to declare a law fixing the wages of women constitutional and a law fixing the wages of men unconstitutional. The moral stimulus in the one instance is no greater than in the other. If higher wages are essential to preserve the morals of women, they are equally essential to preserve the morals of men.

This leads to another angle. If the law is to be equitably enforced, it requires a most careful and judicious inquiry by the board into living conditions-- the cost of rent, clothes, food, and recreation. If the power, therefore, exists to fix wages in the interest of good morals and the promotion of the general welfare, the power must likewise be conceded to fix the prices of all commodities entering into the determination of an equitable wage. In no other way can justice be accorded. The wage fixed for an employer to pay his employee cannot be justified, if based upon the unrestrained prices which the employee may have to pay the merchant for food and clothes, or the landlord for rent. The logical result of such a course relegates the whole matter of prices to the realm of legislation.

The liberty protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution includes the freedom of contract and the right to contract with relation to one's business. 'It is undoubtedly true, as more than once declared by this court, that the general right to contract in relation to one's business is part of the liberty of the individual, protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. ' Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412, 421, 28 Sup.Ct. 324, 326 (52 L.Ed. 551, 13 Ann.Cas. 957). In Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1, 14, 35 Sup.Ct. 240, 243 (59 L.Ed. 441, L.R.A. 1915C, 960), the court, affirming the doctrine announced in the Muller Case, said:

'The principle is fundamental and vital. Included in the right of personal liberty and the right of private property-- partaking of the nature of each--is the right to make contracts for the acquisition of property. Chief among such contracts is that of personal employment, by which labor and other services are exchanged for money or other forms of property. If this right be struck down or arbitrarily interfered with, there is a substantial impairment of liberty in the long-established constitutional sense. The right is as essential to the laborer as to the capitalist, to the poor as to the rich; for the vast majority of persons have no other honest way to begin to acquire property, save by working for money.'

The public safety and welfare may justify the Legislature in limiting the hours of labor in mines and other hazardous industries, and require safeguards to be employed in conducting dangerous occupations. Such regulations, however, affect only the mode of operation, and do not invade the domain of prices. They are easily distinguished from the purely economic question of how much the employer shall

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pay the employee for his services. In one case the business conducted is so inherently dangerous that its regulation, as to methods of operation, becomes a valid...

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