Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has compared federal construction wage law to the drip-style art of abstract painter Jackson Pollock, a federal judge sought to clarify when state law claims involving the Davis-Bacon Act should be tried in federal court.

The Davis-Bacon Act is a minimum-wage law mandating the payment for construction workers who work on federally funded projects. Haroon Ali, a laborer working on a Philadelphia Housing Authority development, invoked the act after his and his co-workers’ wages were slashed and the proceeds went to fund fringe benefits for a union he didn’t belong to.

Because of the Davis-Bacon Act implications, defendants Dale Construction and DLG Development Corp. removed the case to federal court from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Ali sought to remand the case back to state court, claiming that although his state claims are premised on the Davis-Bacon Act, they do not trigger federal jurisdiction.

According to the opinion by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, “The Supreme Court has likened jurisprudence in this area to a Jackson Pollock painting.” She added, “Today, in an effort to clarify the image, I add another brush stroke.”

Brody pointed to four requirements as to whether a federal case can be made out of state-related Davis-Bacon claims, which were laid out and refined in two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Gunn v. Minton and Grable & Sons Metal Products v. Darue Engineering & Manufacturing. Under that case law, Davis-Bacon claims can only trigger federal jurisdiction if they ”(1) necessarily raised, (2) actually disputed, (3) substantial, and (4) capable of resolution in federal court without disrupting the federal-state balance approved by Congress.”

As to the first requirement, Brody said the defendants’ alleged failure to pay a federally-mandated minimum wage clearly presents a federal issue and is actually disputed.

However, on the third point, Brody said the Davis-Bacon issue was not substantial, thus eliminating the need to consider the last requirement. She said this was because the resolution of the matter would have no impact on the federal government.

“In this case, there is no broad impact on the federal government because the Davis-Bacon issue does not directly affect actions taken by federal actors,” Brody said. “The federal issue here relates to actions taken by private actors and a local agency. Either defendants’ actions violated the Davis-Bacon Act or they did not.”

Dale is represented by Jonathan Landesman of Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman.

“I represent a lot of contractors and construction managers like Dale Corp. who work on federal projects. As a practical matter, I am troubled by the court’s ruling because it effectively creates a new rule of law that subjects these contractors to being sued by their employees in state court for alleged violations of the federal prevailing wage law (the Davis Bacon Act). In any event, I am very much looking forward to litigating this case on the merits,” Landesman said in an emailed statement.

Ali is represented by Thomas More Holland, who did not respond to a request for comment.