Chicago-Kent Student Wins $5,000 Mary Rose Strubbe Prize for Timely, Meticulous Submission

Monday, January 25, 2021

Martin StainthorpAs a Chicago union organizer, Martin Stainthorp learned firsthand how important paid sick leave is. And when the COVID-19 pandemic spread, he knew the need would only grow.

His winning entry for Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Mary Rose Strubbe Labor and Employment Writing Prize—which outlined current legal attempts to challenge state and local sick and family leave ordinances—reflects that urgency.

“The timeliness [of the topic] struck all of us,” says Professor Elizabeth De Armond, who, as Chicago-Kent’s legal writing director, organized the Strubbe competition’s blind-judging panel.

Stainthorp, a Chicago-Kent Juris Doctorate candidate, notes that with no substantive or unified federal policy addressing paid sick and family leave in the wake of COVID-19, dozens of states, counties, and municipalities have stepped in to confront the issue.

The problem, he says, is this disjointed “patchwork” of laws can run into problems with employers that operate in more than one city or state.

Local ordinances are at times challenged in federal court, specifically under a statute entitled the Employment Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA.

Originally designed to create uniform, national standards to govern employment benefit plans, ERISA has been used by some employers to argue that sick leave ordinances passed in one state should be “preempted” by those very same uniform, nationwide standards.

If ERISA could “preempt” extra benefits granted under local laws, it would thus nullify them.

“The question of federal preemption of such laws remains an emerging and somewhat unsettled area of the law,” Stainthorp writes. Indeed, his paper outlines recent decisions coming down on both sides of the debate.

Stainthorp goes deep into the weeds—which impressed the judges, De Armond notes.

“Preemption is hard, complicated, detail-oriented stuff. I say this as somebody who’s written about it. But he did a very, very good job laying it out,” she says.

In one prominent deep dive, Stainthorp explains how some employers have argued that sick leave plans paid for with separate trust funds—rather than an employer’s general fund—could allow for successful ERISA challenges. That argument could only work, he notes, if such funds were adequately separated—and thus protected from potential creditors in the event of insolvency.

“I didn’t see any examples where an employer actually did that successfully,” Stainthorp says.

But he notes in his paper, “While the majority of these (local) laws will survive ERISA preemption challenges, some do contain provisions and features that will inspire employers, already strapped during the pandemic, to challenge (those laws).

“Therefore, paid sick leave advocates, legislators, and employers should consider issues of ERISA preemption as they draft new legislation and ordinances against the backdrop of this still emerging and unsettled area of the law,” Stainthorp concludes.

A Chicago and Cook County sick day ordinance took effect in 2017, mandating that employers provide employees who work at least 80 hours in a four-month period with paid sick days. Illinois is also considering a statewide paid sick leave law.

Stainthorp grew up in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and worked as an organizer for Service Employees International Union Local 1 as well as for the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, where he helped fast-food workers fight for wage increases and union rights.

“I worked with a lot of attorneys at that time and was really interested in what they were doing. And I knew Chicago-Kent had a really good labor/employment program,” Stainthorp says.

He particularly credits Diane Soubly, an adjunct Chicago-Kent professor who teaches Employee Benefits Law and Litigation, for helping him with his paper.

Stainthorp is set to attain his Juris Doctorate from Chicago-Kent in May.

The Strubbe Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of legal writing in labor and employment law by a Chicago-Kent student. Strubbe graduated with honors from Chicago-Kent in 1981 and worked in private practice before returning to the college in 1994 to teach and direct the Legal Research and Writing Program. Following Strubbe’s retirement in 2017, the Chicago Federation of Labor, faculty, and alumni joined together to establish the $5,000 prize.

In addition to the monetary award, Stainthorp’s paper will be published on the Chicago-Kent Institute for Law and the Workplace website and shared with prize donors.