June 22, 2017

U.S. DOJ Files Brief Supporting Arbitration Agreements That Bar Employee Class Actions

By Emily Hobbs-Wright

Last September, the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General urged the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that arbitration agreements that prohibit employees from pursuing work-related claims on a class action basis are unlawful because they violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). On June 16, 2017, however, the federal government filed a brief taking the exact opposite position, namely that class-action waivers in arbitration agreements should be enforced. This flip-flop in position is quite extraordinary, even with the change in administrations, making this important case one to watch next term. Here are the issues at stake for employers.

NLRB Appeal of Murphy Oil Case

With its controversial 2012 decision in the D.R. Horton case, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has advocated that arbitration agreements between an employer and its employees that ban employees from pursuing work-related claims as a class or group are unenforceable as they violate employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection under the NLRA. In 2013, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the NLRB’s ruling in D.R. Horton, holding that the use of class action procedures is not a “substantive right” of employees under the NLRA and therefore, arbitration agreements with class-action waivers should be enforced under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).

The Fifth Circuit rejected the NLRB’s view on class-action waivers a second time when it ruled that Murphy Oil, which operates more than 1,000 gas stations in 21 states, did not commit an unfair labor practice when enforcing its arbitration agreements that required employees to resolve work-related claims on an individual basis. Two other appellate circuits – the Second and Eighth – have agreed with the Fifth Circuit’s position that class-action waivers are enforceable. Other circuits, however, including the Ninth and Seventh, have ruled in favor of the NLRB on this issue, creating inconsistencies concerning whether such agreements are lawful.

In the closing days of the Obama administration in September 2016, the Office of the Solicitor General (which is tasked with conducting government litigation before the Supreme Court) filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking it to decide the validity of class-action waivers in arbitration agreements through appeal of the Murphy Oil case. The government argued on behalf of the NLRB that such agreements were unlawful. Employers Ernst & Young and Epic Systems also sought Supreme Court review of their adverse decisions from other circuits on this same issue. In January 2017, just days before President Trump’s inauguration, the high court agreed to hear all three consolidated cases in its next term.

The NLRB Left To Go It Alone

When the United States filed its brief with the Supreme Court last week changing positions, it did so as a “friend of the court.” The June 16th brief is signed by lawyers from the Solicitor General’s office but not by any NLRB lawyers – although both offices were signatories to the original petition seeking review.

Under the Court’s briefing schedule, briefs from the NLRB and the employee-petitioners are due on August 9, 2017. According to a short statement on the NLRB’s website, the Solicitor General’s Office “authorized the National Labor Relations Board to represent itself” in the Murphy Oil case before the Supreme Court. This sets up a unique situation for oral arguments this fall when a lawyer from the Solicitor General’s office may argue against a lawyer for another federal agency, the NLRB.

What It Means For Employers

The change in position by the Solicitor General’s Office could lend additional weight to the employers’ arguments in favor of upholding class-action waivers in arbitration agreements. It is a business-friendly position that reins in the extensive reach of the NLRB in recent years. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of employers and against the NLRB, businesses will be able to enforce arbitration agreements containing class action waivers nationwide. We will keep you posted as this case proceeds to a ruling, which could be published about this time next year. Stay tuned!

June 20, 2017

No-Recording Policies: May Employers Ban All Worker Recordings?

By Steve Gutierrez

With a smartphone in almost every pocket, workers have high definition video and audio recording capabilities at their fingertips. It may be easier than ever before for employees to record workplace operations, meetings, disciplinary discussions, picketing, and other conditions and happenings in the workplace.

Some employers see potential worker recordings as detrimental to open and honest workplace dialogue and as well as potentially undermining a company’s protection of its proprietary or confidential information. These concerns may lead employers to adopt a policy to limit or prohibit employees from making recordings at work. After all, it seems inherently reasonable to require that employees get prior management approval before recording anything at work, or to limit what employees may do with video or audio recordings after they are made. So what’s the problem? Broad recording bans may infringe on employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

How Policies May Violate The NLRA

Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees the right to “engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” This means that employees, whether unionized or not, have the right to take actions to help protect, enhance, or improve the terms and conditions of employment for themselves and their co-workers. Employers who interfere with or restrain employees’ Section 7 rights may be found to have committed an unfair labor practice (ULP) under the NLRA.

So how does a no-recording policy interfere with such rights? Even when a policy or rule does not expressly restrict protected Section 7 activities, mere maintenance of a policy can constitute a ULP in three scenarios: (1) if employees would reasonably construe the language in the policy to prohibit protected activity; (2) if the policy was implemented in response to union activity; or (3) if the policy has been applied to restrict the exercise of protected rights.

Overly Broad Restrictions May “Chill” Section 7 Rights 

Typically, it is the first scenario that gets employers in trouble. You see, the National Labor Relations Board (Board) has held that in certain circumstances, employee recordings in the workplace can itself be a protected Section 7 activity. Generally, the Board finds that employee photographing, videotaping, and recording is protected by Section 7 when employees are acting in concert for their mutual aid and protection and there is no overriding employer interest. For example, employees recording images of employee picketing, or documenting discussions about unsafe working conditions, inconsistent application of work rules, or other terms of employment could be concerted activities protected under the NLRA.

When employers implement an overly broad policy that prohibits employees from making any workplace recordings, or permits recordings only with advance management approval, the Board takes the position that employees would reasonably construe that language as prohibiting protected Section 7 activities. As such, broad no-recording policies are seen as “chilling” employee rights, and therefore, a violation of the NLRA.

Second Circuit Recently Upheld ULP On Broad No-Recording Policy

In December of 2015, the Board ruled that Whole Foods had violated the NLRA by maintaining an overbroad no-recording policy. The company’s policy prohibited all recording without management approval. Whole Foods stated that its purpose for the policy was to promote employee communication in the workplace. The Board saw it differently, ruling that the policy’s overly broad language could “chill” an employee’s exercise of Section 7 rights because it was not limited to controlling those activities in which employees are not acting in concert.

Whole Foods appealed the Board’s decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals which recently issued its summary order affirming the Board’s 2015 decision. The appellate court wrote that the Board’s determination was supported by substantial evidence and was decided in accordance with law.

In a footnote, however, the Court noted that not every no-recording policy will necessarily infringe on employees’ Section 7 rights. But a lawful policy would have to be drafted narrowly so that it protects the company’s interests without interfering with employees’ protected activities.

Practical Policy Pointers

Employers generally have the right to control what goes on in their workplaces, so long as their policies do not violate specific employee rights. Legitimate business concerns, such as protecting confidential and proprietary information and fostering open and honest communications in the workplace, may justify a policy that limits employees from recording what goes on at work. In order to craft an enforceable policy that would likely avoid NLRB scrutiny, consider implementing the following practical tips:

  • Tailor the policy narrowly – identify those areas, activities, and/or times when employees are prohibited from recording, leaving non-problematic areas, activities, and times open to recording. An outright ban will likely be struck down.
  • Identify the legitimate reasons for the policy – by stating the strong business reasons for not allowing recording at certain times or places, employers help dispel the argument that the policy infringes on employee rights.
  • Be consistent – if your business permits visitors to your plant to take video or audio recordings of your operation, it will be difficult to argue a legitimate business reason for denying employees to make recordings in the same areas. Similarly, if your business has surveillance cameras throughout the workplace, it may be difficult to argue that employee recordings will harm your business interests. Also, be consistent in policy enforcement because allowing some employees to record while denying that ability to other similarly situated employees will lead to trouble.
  • Include a disclaimer – the policy should state that it is not intended to infringe on any employee’s right to engage in protected concerted activity.

Like most employment policies, a no-recording policy should reflect your specific business interests and industry and be narrowly tailored to achieve your end goal. If in doubt about whether you need or should revise a no-recording policy, please consult with your employment attorney.

June 7, 2017

DOL Withdraws Obama-Era Interpretations On Independent Contractors and Joint Employment

By Brad Cave

On June 7, 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced that it was withdrawing two informal guidances, namely a 2015 administrator interpretation on independent contractors and a 2016 administrator interpretation on joint employment, effective immediately. The DOL’s short announcement states that the removal of the administrator interpretations does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), and that the DOL “will continue to fully and fairly enforce all laws within its jurisdiction.” Here’s an attempt to read between the lines and determine the DOL’s position on these two issues.

Withdrawal of Independent Contractor Interpretation

When we wrote about the July 15, 2015 independent contractor interpretation here, we noted that then-Wage and Hour Division Administrator David Weil stressed that most workers meet the criteria to be deemed employees under the FLSA, and therefore, should not be treated as independent contractors. Although noting that multiple factors are used to determine independent contractor status, former administrator Weil stated that the DOL would focus primarily on whether the worker runs his or her own independent business or if instead, the worker is economically dependent on the employer.

Withdrawal of the 2015 interpretation guidance does not change the fact that to “employ” is broadly defined in the FLSA as “to suffer or permit to work” and consequently, most individuals hired to perform work fall within that definition as an employee. In addition, the long-standing  multi-factor “economic realities” test used by courts to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor will continue to apply.

That said, the withdrawal of the 2015 administrator interpretation may be a signal that the DOL will no longer focus on misclassifications of independent contractors with the same fervor as it previously did. A more business-friendly DOL may choose to rely on certain factors, such as an independent contractor agreement setting forth the business relationship and the comparative degree of control over the work exerted by the two parties, over those factors that were highlighted in former administrator Weil’s interpretation, such as whether the worker runs his or her own independent business. The distinction between employees and independent contractors remains, but query whether this DOL, under the direction of new Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, will change the balance in determining independent contractor status.

Joint Employment Interpretation Withdrawn 

When the DOL issued its administrator interpretation on joint employer status in February 2016, we wrote here that the DOL made it clear that the agency planned to examine dual employer relationships very closely, with an apparent intent to find joint employer status in more circumstances under both the FLSA and the MSPA. By withdrawing that interpretation, the DOL may be suggesting a contraction of its efforts to find joint employer status. If that is the case, employers who utilize workers employed by a staffing agency or other workers provided by a third-party may face less scrutiny (and potentially, less liability) for wage and hour violations as a potential joint employer. In addition, companies that use the same workers across different subsidiaries or among other legally distinct entities may see a relaxation of the DOL’s emphasis on joint employer status.

The Tea Leaves Say . . .

Employers should stay vigilant about ensuring that workers they treat as independent contractors meet the multi-factor tests for independent contractor status. Similarly, organizations that could be subject to the joint employer analysis should examine their status under the applicable tests and are urged to review their third-party staffing arrangements to ensure compliance with wage and hour (and other DOL-enforced) laws. But, with the withdrawal of some of the more proactive enforcement approaches of the past administration, the DOL may be signaling its more business-friendly stance. Perhaps the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will be next to announce a less aggressive view towards finding joint employer status and a retraction of other arguably expansive positions taken in past years. We’ll keep you informed as new developments arise.

June 5, 2017

Positive Marijuana Drug Tests Up By 11% in Colorado, According To Recent Report

By Mark Wiletsky

Positive results from workforce drug tests are at the highest rate in twelve years, according to the recently released Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index. Of particular significance to Colorado employers is the increase in positive marijuana results in urine drug tests in 2016 – the first year of results after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use.

Marijuana Testing Methods Show Varied Positivity Rates

In creating its annual report, Quest Diagnostics analyzes more than ten million drug test results from tests it conducted on behalf of U.S. employers. Positive results for marijuana for the general U.S. workforce increased significantly over the past few years, with the percentages of positive marijuana results varying by the method of testing, as follows:

  • Oral fluid testing: up nearly 75% from 2013 (5.1%) to 2016 (8.9%)
  • Hair testing: up over 4% from 2015 (7.0%) to 2016 (7.3%)
  • Urine testing: up 4% from 2015 (2.4%) to 2016 (2.5%)

In Colorado, the increase in positive marijuana urine tests was a striking 11% from 2015 (2.61%) to 2016 (2.9%). The positive marijuana urine test results also increased significantly by nine percent from 2015 to 2016 in Washington state, where recreational marijuana also was legalized. Whether these state increases can be explained by the legalization of recreational pot is unclear, but both states reflected increased marijuana positivity higher than the national increase for the same years.

Nationwide Increase In Cocaine and Methamphetamine Positivity

The recent Quest report revealed that the positivity rate for urine testing for cocaine increased twelve percent in 2016 for the general U.S. workforce. While that annual percentage increase is high, the percent of U.S. workers who tested positive for cocaine in a urine test by Quest in 2016 was a relatively low 0.28 percent.

The results for amphetamines, which includes amphetamine and methamphetamine, increased more than eight percent in urine testing from 2015 to 2016 in the general U.S. workforce. Looking at the increase over the last four years, methamphetamine positivity in urine testing rose 64 percent. In oral fluid testing, those numbers are even higher as methamphetamines positivity increased 75 percent between 2013 (0.24%) and 2016 (0.42%).

Here is a look at an infographic from Quest Diagnostic regarding the results from its most recent report:

Workforce Drug Testing Index: As overall substance abuse rises across the United States, drug testing programs continue to play an important role in helping to create safe, drug-free workplaces. (PRNewsfoto/Quest Diagnostics)

Drug Testing Considerations

With positive drug test results on the rise, more employers will likely face the tricky employment decisions associated with positive tests. Here are some legal issues and best practices to consider:

  • Have a written, zero tolerance drug policy prohibiting employees, while on company premises or while engaged on company business, from (a) the use, possession, sale, and distribution of illegal drugs, and (b) being under the influence of illegal drugs. Illegal drugs should be defined as any substance that is illegal under either federal or state law as well as prescription drugs prescribed to another person or that are taken in a dosage or manner that was not prescribed.
  • Consider whether you will require employees to report their use of prescription drugs that may affect their ability to safely perform their work duties, especially for those in safety-sensitive positions. Be careful, however, not to discriminate against employees who use prescription medications to treat a disability. You may need to make a reasonable accommodation when dealing with a disabled individual.
  • If you conduct drug tests, have a written policy outlining the following:
    • when tests are conducted (e.g., pre-employment, reasonable suspicion, random, post-accident, etc.)
    • consequences for failing a drug test, up to and including termination
    • notification that refusing a drug test will result in termination
    • any state-specific testing requirements
  • If an employee uses marijuana for medical purposes, consider whether any employment accommodation obligations exist under applicable law. Colorado’s medical marijuana law does not specify an accommodation requirement and thus far, Colorado courts have not imposed such a requirement. Some other state’s medical marijuana laws, however, do impose workplace accommodation obligations, so when faced with a positive marijuana drug test, be sure to consider any applicable laws.
  • Keep drug test results and any other medical information confidential. This means you should keep separate medical or drug testing files so that this information does not get put in an employee’s regular personnel file. Also limit the individuals who have access to this information.

By planning ahead with appropriate policies and knowledge of your legal requirements, you will help your organization handle positive drug test results properly. When in doubt, consult with a competent employment lawyer.

May 31, 2017

Sexual Harassment Claim May Proceed Despite Lack Of Specificity In EEOC Charge

By Brad Cave

The Tenth Circuit recently reversed the dismissal of a quid pro quo sexual harassment claim and sent it back to the trial court for a trial, rejecting the employer’s argument that the required, pre-lawsuit EEOC charge did not allege quid pro quo harassment.

Labeling Between Two Forms of Harassment Not Required

Most human resource professionals recognize that two forms of sexual harassment are prohibited under Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination. Quid pro quo harassment arises when a supervisor demands sexual favors from a subordinate in exchange for the receipt or withholding of a term or condition of employment. Hostile work environment harassment occurs when sufficiently severe or pervasive offensive conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment. This distinction has been recognized for decades by the courts as two variations of prohibited sexual harassment.

Despite the widespread acceptance of these two recognized forms of unlawful harassment, neither Title VII nor its regulations use the “quid pro quo” or “hostile work environment” labels. As the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions apply to Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma) recently pointed out, these labels began in academia and then were adopted by the courts. But, according to the Court, despite the ability of the labels to describe the alternate ways that sexual harassment may occur, the labels themselves are not wholly distinct claims. They both raise a claim of sex discrimination in the workplace in violation of Title VII.

Because a claim of sex discrimination encompasses both types of sexual harassment, the majority of the Tenth Circuit three-judge panel concluded that a former employee’s EEOC charge need only allege sufficient facts to alert his former employer of the alleged violation without having to specifically label which form of harassment is being alleged. Jones v. Needham, No. 16-6156 (10th Cir., May 12, 2017).

Male Mechanic Alleged Female Supervisor Made Sexual Advances

The case at issue arose when Bryan “Shane” Jones alleged that he was fired because he refused to have sex with his direct supervisor, Julie Needham. Jones worked as a mechanic for Needham Trucking, of which Ms. Needham was also a shareholder.

To file his claim with the EEOC, Jones completed an intake questionnaire on which he checked the boxes for “Sex” and “Retaliation” as the basis for his charge. He also wrote in sex harassment on the form. Moreover, he identified two witnesses that he claimed would testify that they knew of the sexual harassment and provided that another mechanic was treated better because he had sex with Ms. Needham. He also prepared an attachment to provide more details of his claim, including the statement that “I was terminated because I refused to agree to Ms. Needham’s sexual advances and I rejected all such efforts by her.”

EEOC Issued Right-to-Sue Letter After Preparing An Abbreviated Charge

Unbeknownst to Jones, the EEOC apparently did not receive the separate attachment to his intake questionnaire. Instead, the EEOC prepared a charge form based on the intake questionnaire alone. That charge form stated that during his employment, Jones was subjected to sexual remarks by owner, Julie Needham, that he complained about the sexual harassment to the general manager and other owners and nothing was done, and that Needham terminated his employment. The charge did not specify the additional information that Jones had written in his would-be attachment about Needham’s sexual advances.

After the EEOC issued Jones a right-to-sue letter, he filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging sexual harassment and other state-law claims. Although his complaint initially pursued his sexual harassment claim on both a hostile work environment and quid pro quo basis, he later dropped his argument based on a hostile work environment.

District Court Dismissed Quid Pro Quo Claim For Failure To Exhaust Administrative Remedies

Looking at whether Jones’ EEOC charge form sufficiently alleged sexual harassment, the district court appeared to find it deficient because the form did not include the missing attachment that spelled out the quid pro quo allegations. Relying on precedent that a plaintiff’s claim in federal court “is generally limited by the scope of the administrative investigation that can reasonably be expected to follow the charge of discrimination submitted to the EEOC,” the district court dismissed Jones’s sexual harassment claim, holding that Jones had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies for his quid pro quo sexual harassment claim.

Jones appealed to the Tenth Circuit, which revived his claim upon finding that the charge form contained sufficient allegations to trigger an investigation that would look into “what [Needham’s] sexual remarks were, why Mr. Jones was fired, and whether the two events were connected.” As described above, the Tenth Circuit refused to require that the charge be more specific as to the type or form of harassment alleged.

Lesson: Investigate All Possible Harassment Without Regard For Labels

Although Jones’s employer, Needham Trucking, argued that the facts alleged in the EEOC charge failed to provide it with notice that Jones was alleging quid pro quo harassment, the Tenth Circuit didn’t buy that argument. Instead, it expected the employer to investigate and respond to the facts that were in the charge regardless of whether they supported a hostile work environment or quid pro quo claim. Consequently, employers should investigate all facts in an EEOC charge and let their investigations follow where the facts take them.

Failure to exhaust administrative remedies is a very viable and useful defense when an employee’s lawsuit alleges claims outside of the allegations found in the EEOC charge. But when it comes to sexual harassment, don’t get too caught up in any labels regarding the theory of harassment being alleged. If the facts allege a claim under either (or both) forms of harassment, the charge may very well be sufficient.

May 17, 2017

Employer’s Dispute Resolution Program Did Not Prevent Employee Termination

By Steve Gutierrez

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld judgment in favor of an employer on a former employee’s retaliation and wrongful discharge claims, ruling that the employer’s internal dispute resolution program did not prevent the employer from terminating the employee. In full disclosure, I represented the employer in this case and with my client’s approval, offer this insight into how we obtained this favorable outcome.

Account Executive Fired For Poor Performance and Missed Meetings

Jill Doran-Slevin (Doran-Slevin) began working for United Parcel Service (UPS) as an account executive in late 2010. Despite being assigned thousands of accounts, Doran-Slevin quickly began falling behind in her sales plan results. She also failed to adequately follow-up and serve her customers. In her 2011 performance review, Doran-Slevin was informed she needed to significantly improve her performance.

In early 2012, Doran-Slevin’s new area manager as well as human resources personnel worked with her to create a goal-setting matrix to help her improve her performance. UPS scheduled multiple meetings to discuss the matrix with Doran-Slevin, but she had a series of excuses for not attending the meetings.

During that time, Doran-Slevin composed two letters in which she alleged that she “was the target of discriminatory practices involving [her] gender [and] age.” She sent the first letter to UPS and the second to the EEOC. She did not, however, notify UPS that she had sent her allegations to the EEOC.

Upon receipt of Doran-Slevin’s letter, the company began investigating her allegations. While the investigation was ongoing, Doran-Slevin met with her managers to discuss a revised goal-setting matrix which she signed. Although UPS thought that the meeting had been positive and productive, Doran-Slevin stopped coming to work. For three days, she failed to show up for work or answer her phone. When Doran-Slevin finally called in and met with UPS managers, she indicated that she was interested in leaving with a severance package. UPS scheduled a follow-up meeting in order to discuss possible severance, but after Doran-Slevin failed to show up or answer her phone at the meeting time, UPS terminated her employment.

Employee Failed To Utilize Employee Dispute Resolution Program

UPS has an Employee Dispute Resolution (EDR) process that outlines a five-step internal grievance procedure. It begins with an informal open door step, followed by more formal dispute reviews, up to and including voluntary arbitration. Importantly, however, nothing in the EDR policy prohibits UPS from imposing discipline, including termination, while the internal dispute process proceeds. 

At the time of her termination, UPS informed Doran-Slevin that she could use the EDR process if she wished. In addition, when it sent her a formal termination letter, UPS enclosed a brochure explaining the EDR process. Doran-Slevin admitted at trial that she did not try to initiate the EDR process with respect to her termination. 

Former Employee Sues On Multiple Claims

Doran-Slevin pursued multiple claims against UPS, including retaliation under federal and state anti-discrimination laws based on her filing an EEOC complaint and wrongful discharge under Montana’s Wrongful Discharge From Employment Act.

The case proceeded to a jury trial in federal court in Montana. After many days of testimony, the district court granted judgment as a matter of law in UPS’s favor on Doran-Slevin’s retaliation and wrongful discharge claims. The court allowed Doran-Slevin’s claim for lack of good cause for termination to go to the jury, which returned a unanimous verdict in UPS’s favor. Doran-Slevin appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on multiple grounds, including the grant of judgment as a matter of law in favor of UPS.

Appellate Court Upholds Judgment In Favor of Employer

After considering the written positions of both sides as well as asking questions during oral argument, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. The Ninth Circuit stated that no reasonable juror could have determined that UPS terminated Doran-Slevin based on her filing of an EEOC claim because it was undisputed that UPS did not learn about the EEOC complaint prior to terminating Doran-Slevin. The Court also rejected Doran-Slevin’s wrongful discharge claims, finding in part that Doran-Slevin had not triggered application of UPS’s EDR program and additionally, the EDR program did not prohibit UPS from terminating Doran-Slevin. The Court upheld judgment in favor of UPS.

Take Aways For Employers

Litigation is rarely a pleasant experience, but achieving a court victory based on sound employment practices can make it worthwhile. Of course this case is unique on its facts and cannot guarantee the outcome of future cases, but some useful best practices regarding terminations may be gleaned from it, including the following:

  • Review employment laws of the state where the employee resides/works prior to making a termination decision. This case arose in Montana which has a unique wrongful discharge statute. An employer who relies on an employee’s at-will status when implementing a termination decision may well be out of luck in a state like Montana, so state-specific differences should be reviewed prior to making employment decisions.
  • Use disclaimers and disavow contractual obligations in your policies. By specifically stating that your handbook or other policies do not constitute a contract between the employee and the company, you may help eliminate claims that you breached your obligation to follow any particular steps prior to terminating employees.
  • If you use an internal dispute resolution process, reserve the company’s right to discipline or terminate employees for legitimate business reasons even while the process is ongoing. Similarly, if you use a progressive discipline policy, make sure that it states that the company may skip steps and escalate to immediate termination should the company deem it necessary.

By taking the time to get your policies and documentation in order and evaluating any risks prior to making a termination decision, you will increase your chances of prevailing should the employee file a claim against your organization.

May 3, 2017

Is Comp Time Coming To The Private Sector?

By Mark Wiletsky

Employees in the private sector may have the option of earning compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay for hours worked in excess of forty hours per week. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017, H.B. 1180, which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to permit employees in the private sector to receive compensatory time off at a rate of not less than one and one-half hours for each hour of overtime worked. The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Eligibility For Comp Time

Under the FLSA, compensatory time in lieu of overtime pay has long been permitted for public sector government employees. But non-government, private sector employees have not had the option of accruing comp time as the FLSA requires that private sector employers compensate overtime only through pay. Under this bill, private sector employees who have worked at least 1,000 hours for their employer during a period of continuous employment with the employer in the previous 12-month period may agree to accrue comp time instead of being paid overtime pay.

Employee Agreement For Comp Time

Under the bill, an employer may provide comp time to employees either (a) in accordance with the provisions of an applicable collective bargaining agreement for union employees, or (b) in accordance with an agreement between a non-union employee and the employer. In the case of non-union employees, the agreement between the employee and the employer must be reached before the overtime work is performed and the agreement must be affirmed by a written or otherwise verifiable record maintained by the employer.

The agreement must specify that the employer has offered and the employee has chosen to receive compensatory time in lieu of monetary overtime compensation. It must also specify that it was entered into knowingly and voluntarily by such employee. Requiring comp time in lieu of overtime pay cannot be a condition of employment.

Limits On And Pay-Out Of Accrued Comp Time

The bill specifies that an employee may not accrue more than 160 hours of comp time. No later than January 31 of each calendar year, the employer must pay out any unused comp time accrued but not used during the previous calendar year (or such other 12-month period as the employer specifies to employees). In addition, at the employer’s option, it may pay out an employee’s unused comp time in excess of 80 hours at any time as long as it provides the employee at least 30-days’ advance notice. An employer may also discontinue offering comp time if it provides employees 30-days’ notice of the discontinuation.

The bill provides that an employee may terminate his or her agreement to accrue comp time instead of receiving overtime pay at any time. In addition, an employee may request in writing that all unused, accrued comp time be paid out to him or her at any time. Upon receipt of the pay-out request, an employer has 30 days to pay out the comp time balance. Upon termination of employment, the employer must pay out any unused comp time to the departing employee. The rate of pay during pay-out shall be the regular rate earned by the employee at the time the comp time was accrued, or the regular rate at the time the employee received payment, whichever is higher.

Employee Use of Comp Time

Under the bill, employers must honor employee requests to use accrued comp time within a reasonable period after the request is made. Employers need not honor a request if the use of comp time would unduly disrupt the operations of the employer. Employers are prohibited from threatening, intimidating, or coercing employees either in their choice in whether to select comp time or overtime pay, or in their use of accrued comp time.

Will It Pass?

The bill passed the House 229-197, largely along party lines with all Democrats and six Republicans voting against it. Reports suggest that although Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate, they will need at least eight Democrats to vote in favor of the bill to avoid a filibuster. Supporters of the bill urge that it offers workers more flexibility and control over their time off. Those who oppose the bill say it could weaken work protections as it offers a promise of future time off at the expense of working overtime hours for free. This is not the first time that federal comp time legislation has been proposed, so we will have to see if the Senate can line up sufficient votes to pass it this time around. Stay tuned.

May 2, 2017

Colorado Legislative Update: The Fate of Employment-Related Bills (So Far!)

By Steve Collis

Every year, the Colorado General Assembly considers a myriad of employment-related bills, but only a small number ever get signed into law. This update highlights what has (and hasn’t) passed this session thus far.

Four Month Legislative Session

For its 2017 legislative session, the Colorado House and Senate convened on January 11th and will adjourn on May 10th. During the 120 days of the session, legislators will introduce, debate, and vote on many bills – over 600 had been introduced by mid-April. But with Democrats holding a majority in the House (37 Democrats; 28 Republicans) and Republicans holding a slight majority in the Senate (18 Republicans; 17 Democrats), few bills get passed in both chambers and make it to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law. Here is a look at the status of significant employment bills up for consideration this year.

Colorado Bills That Passed

Wage Theft Transparency Act (HB17-1021): Colorado’s wage law will now treat information about an employer’s violation of wage law as a public record that may be released to the public upon an open records request. The information may include any notice of citation or notice of assessment issued to an employer for a wage violation following exhaustion of all remedies, unless the information involves a trade secret. Before releasing the information, the Director of the Division of Labor Standards and Statistics will notify the employer of the potential release of the information. The employer then has 20 days to provide the Director with documentation demonstrating that the information is a trade secret. If the Director determines that the information, or any part of it, is a trade secret, it will be treated as confidential and will not be released. For purposes of this designation, a “trade secret” has the same meaning as set forth in Colorado’s Uniform Trade Secret Act, C.R.S. § 7-74-102(4). Governor Hickenlooper signed this bill into law on April 13, 2017.

Entities That May Provide Fingerprints For Background Checks (SB17-189): Prior to this change in law, individuals needing to submit fingerprints for a criminal history check to hold certain licenses or jobs were required to get their fingerprints taken by a local law enforcement agency. As a result of this amendment, other third-party vendors who are approved by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation may capture a person’s fingerprints electronically using the livescan equipment approved by the Bureau. This should make it easier to complete the onboarding process for new hires in jobs requiring fingerprint-based criminal checks, such as school personnel, child and elder care workers, private investigators, and others. The bill passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by the Governor on April 24, 2017.

Worker’s Comp Clarification on Mental Impairments (HB17-1229): This bill adds definitions for “psychologically traumatic event” and “serious bodily injury” and revises the definition of “mental impairment” under the Colorado workers’ compensation statute. The purpose is to clarify when a worker is entitled to benefits for a mental impairment. The new definitions capture traumatic events such as being subject to the use of deadly force, or witnessing a death or serious bodily injury, or the immediate aftermath of the same. This bill passed the House in late March and passed the Senate on April 19, 2017. It should be headed to the Governor’s desk for signature and if signed, will become effective on July 1, 2018.

Elimination of NLRB Exempt Employers From Colorado Wage Transparency Protections (HB17-1269): Colorado’s anti-discrimination law (CADA) prohibits discrimination on many grounds, including because employees disclose, compare, or discuss their wages. Prior to this amendment, this CADA provision excluded employers who are exempt from the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (generally, governmental entities, federal reserve banks, and entities subject to the Railway Labor Act). This amendment eliminates the exclusionary sentence, thereby providing wage transparency protections to all Colorado employees. The House passed this bill in early April and the Senate passed it on April 20, 2017. It heads to the Governor’s desk and if signed, will go into effect on August 9, 2017.

Employment-Related Bills Still Under Consideration

FAMLI Act – Creation of Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program (HB17-1307): This bill would create a family and medical leave insurance program (FAMLI) in the Department of Labor and Employment to provide partial wage-replacement benefits to eligible individuals who take leave from work to care for a new child or a family member with a serious health condition or who are unable to work due to their own serious health condition. The insurance program would be funded through employee premiums. Each employee in Colorado would pay a premium (through payroll deduction) based on a percentage of the employee’s yearly wages, not to exceed .99%. The director of the division would determine the premium percentage and the weekly benefit amounts, according to parameters set in the bill. Employers could not require employees to use other accrued paid leaves prior to use of this paid FAMLI leave. This bill passed in the House and was introduced in the Senate on April 28, 2017.

Failed Employment-Related Bills 

Ban-The-Box Bill (HB17-1305): This bill would have affected the timing of a prospective employer’s inquiry into a job applicant’s criminal history. Ban-the-box laws are becoming prevalent in many states and municipalities around the nation. This Colorado bill sought to prohibit employers from advertising that a person with a criminal history may not apply, and from asking on an initial job application about the applicant’s criminal history or stating that those with a criminal history may not apply. Exemptions would have existed for jobs where a law specifically prohibits a person convicted of certain crimes from being employed and for employers who participate in a program to encourage employment of individuals with a criminal history. The bill stated that it would not create a new protected class under employment antidiscrimination laws or create a private cause of action for individuals to file lawsuits. Instead, the Department of Labor and Employment would enforce the law through issuance of warnings, orders of compliance, and for second or subsequent violations, civil penalties. The bill passed in the House but died in Senate committee on May 1, 2017.

Academic Activities Leave (HB17-1001): This bill sought to reinstate the protections of the 2009 Parental Involvement in K-12 Education Act, which automatically repealed in September 2015, to allow employees to take time off to attend academic activities for or with the employee’s child. The bill, one of the first introduced in the House this session, passed in the House but died in Senate committee on March 15, 2017.

Stay Tuned

Legislative work really heats up in the final weeks of the session so stay tuned for further developments.

April 19, 2017

Retroactive Leniency Is Not A Reasonable Accommodation

By Brad Cave

Is an employer required to excuse misconduct that was the result of the employee’s disability? The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently looked at this issue and came to an interesting conclusion.

Janna DeWitt has Type I diabetes and is insulin dependent. Beginning in 1997, DeWitt worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (SW Bell) as a customer service representative in its Wichita, Kansas call center. Recognizing that DeWitt had a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), SW Bell permitted her to take breaks as needed to eat or drink in order to raise her blood sugar level. SW Bell also granted DeWitt FMLA leave which she took intermittently for health issues related to her diabetes.

Last Chance Agreement

In 2010, DeWitt made an error by failing to shut down service on a customer’s account after the customer cancelled service. Failure to remove a service plan after cancellation was known as a cramming violation under SW Bell’s Code of Business Conduct and was a terminable offense. DeWitt was suspended following her cramming incident until she could address the issue with her supervisors in what the company called a “Day in Court.” Her Second and Third Line Supervisors decided to place DeWitt on a Last Chance Agreement under which any additional failure to perform satisfactorily could lead to further discipline, up to and including termination.

Terminated For Hanging Up On Customers

Two months after the cramming incident, DeWitt suffered a severe drop in blood sugar at work which she stated caused her to experience disorientation, confusion, and lethargy, making her unable to communicate with anyone. After DeWitt found that she was locked out of her computer, she contacted her First Line Supervisor, Tom Heumann, for assistance. Heumann did not address her locked computer but instead told the Center Support Manager, Beth Kloxin, that  he had been monitoring De Witt’s calls and found that she had hung up on at least two customers. Kloxin responded by saying “I finally got that bitch” and did a little dance.

Later that day, Heumann and Kloxin met with DeWitt for a suspension meeting because of her two customer hang-ups. A union steward also attended the meeting. DeWitt explained that she did not remember taking the dropped calls and that she had been experiencing very low blood sugar levels at the time. Although they reviewed recordings of the dropped calls, DeWitt still did not remember them and asked if they were sure that the calls were hers. Heumann then told DeWitt that she was suspended and that a “Day in Court” would be held at a later date. In response to a request from Kloxin and the union steward, DeWitt provided her blood sugar levels for that afternoon.

About a week later, SW Bell held DeWitt’s “Day in Court.” DeWitt again explained that she did not remember taking the calls due to a severe drop in her blood sugar. Five days later, SW Bell terminated DeWitt for hanging up on two customers in violation of the company’s Code of Business Conduct and her Last Chance Agreement.

ADA and FMLA Claims

DeWitt filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and after receiving her notice of right to sue, filed a lawsuit against SW Bell in federal court. She alleged that the company failed to accommodate her disability and terminated her because of her disability in violation of the ADA, and retaliated against her for taking FMLA leave. After the district court ruled in favor of SW Bell on all of her claims on summary judgment, DeWitt appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions apply to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico).

Employer Need Not Excuse Or Overlook Misconduct 

DeWitt asserted that SW Bell failed to accommodate her disability by not excusing her dropped calls which she says were caused by her disability. The Court disagreed, stating that the ADA does not require employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability by overlooking past misconduct, even when the misconduct is caused by the disability. Instead, the Court cited the EEOC’s ADA Enforcement Guidance which states that reasonable accommodations are “always prospective.”

The Court found that DeWitt had not requested a reasonable accommodation to address concerns that her diabetes could cause her to drop calls. Using a disability as an “after-the-fact excuse” for workplace misconduct is unreasonable and employers need not ignore or overlook past misconduct. Therefore, because asking for retroactive leniency is not a reasonable ADA accommodation, DeWitt’s accommodation claim failed.

Decision-Maker’s Honest Belief In Termination Reasons

On DeWitt’s ADA termination claim, the Court assumed (without deciding) that DeWitt had established that she was a disabled person under the ADA, and was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job. The Court also accepted that SW Bell had provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating DeWitt, namely that she had hung up on at least two customers while on a Last Chance Agreement. To prevail, DeWitt needed to show that SW Bell’s stated reasons for her termination were pretext for discriminating against her.

DeWitt argued that dropping the calls was not intentional but instead, was a result of her disability – her severely low blood sugar at the time. The Court said that didn’t matter. Instead what mattered was whether the decision-maker, Kimberly Baskett-McEnany, who was DeWitt’s Third Line Supervisor, honestly believed that the hang-ups were intentional and acted on that belief in good faith. Finding no evidence to undercut Baskett-McEnany’s belief, the Court ruled that DeWitt’s ADA discrimination claim failed.

FMLA Retaliation Claim Also Fails

DeWitt also argued that SW Bell terminated her in retaliation for her use of FMLA leave. She offered evidence from a former manager at the call center who stated that employees who used FMLA leave were targeted as employees that should be terminated and that the company would look for other reasons to terminate such employees. DeWitt also pointed to Kloxin’s response to Heumann’s revelation that DeWitt had hung up on customers, saying “I finally got that bitch,” as evidence that SW Bell terminated her for using FMLA leave.

Again, the Court rejected DeWitt’s arguments and her FMLA retaliation claim. The Court stated that the former manager’s comments about the company targeting employees who used FMLA leave was no more than speculation, as that person had no knowledge of and was not involved in the company’s decision to terminate DeWitt. In addition, the Court determined that Kloxin’s subjective beliefs were irrelevant as she was not the person who decided to terminate DeWitt. Finding no evidence to send DeWitt’s claims to a jury, the Court upheld the grant of summary judgment in favor of SW Bell on all claims.

Key Lessons

This case highlights some significant management practices that can help defeat discrimination and retaliation claims. First, hold all employees accountable to your standards of conduct. SW Bell terminated DeWitt for violating its code of conduct, providing the necessary legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for actions. In addition, because DeWitt could not provide evidence that other employees who similarly violated the conduct rules were treated more favorably than she was treated, she was unable to show pretext. Second, if a supervisor has a potentially unlawful animus or bias against an employee, take that person out of the decision-making process. Although Kloxin appeared to express animosity against DeWitt (although it is not clear that her animosity was driven by an unlawful motive), she was not involved in the decision to terminate DeWitt and that distinction drove the Court to reject DeWitt’s claims. Finally, remember that a reasonable accommodation applies prospectively. You need not excuse poor performance or misconduct for which no accommodation was requested. That said, when dealing with an employee with a known disability, weigh all employment decisions very carefully and make sure your actions are well supported by your policies and past practices.

April 6, 2017

Seventh Circuit: Title VII Prohibits Sexual-Orientation Discrimination

By Dustin Berger

Sexual orientation discrimination is discrimination on the basis of sex for the purposes of Title VII. So ruled the majority of federal judges for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on April 4, 2017. This groundbreaking ruling is the first time that a federal appellate court has held that Title VII protects workers against discrimination due to their sexual orientation. Hively v. Ivy Tech Cmty. Coll., No. 15-1720 (7th Cir. April 4, 2017).

Title VII Prohibits Discrimination Because of Sex

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the basis of a person’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin … .”  The question before the Seventh Circuit was whether discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of discrimination on the basis of “sex,” and, therefore, prohibited by Title VII.

In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began to assert the position that Title VII does indeed prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. But, the EEOC’s position is not binding law. The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on this question, but all eleven federal courts of appeal, including the Seventh Circuit, had previously ruled that Title VII does not protect employees against sexual orientation discrimination. The full panel of regular judges on the Seventh Circuit, however, agreed to address this issue anew, with the majority concluding that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation.

Lesbian Professor Claimed Discrimination Based on Her Sexual Orientation

To put a face to the case before the court, we look to Kimberly Hively, a part-time adjunct professor at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana. Hively is openly gay. She began teaching at Ivy Tech in 2000. Between 2009 and 2014, she applied for at least six full-time positions but was not selected for any of them. In late 2013, Hively filed a charge with the EEOC, alleging that she was being discriminated against on the basis of her sexual orientation in violation of Title VII for being denied a full-time position. Then, in July 2014, Ivy Tech did not renew Hively’s part-time contract.

After receiving her right to sue letter, Hively filed her discrimination lawsuit in federal district court. Ivy Tech sought to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that Title VII did not protect against sexual orientation discrimination. The district court agreed, and dismissed Hively’s lawsuit. On appeal to a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit, the dismissal was upheld, but the panel wrote that it was bound by earlier Seventh Circuit precedent to so rule. That panel, however, criticized the circuit’s precedent as inconsistent and impractical and opined that the “handwriting was on the wall” to recognize that sexual orientation discrimination was a subset of sex discrimination under Title VII.

The full panel of Seventh Circuit judges then agreed to hear Hively’s case en banc. They concluded that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination also prohibited sexual orientation discrimination for two reasons. First, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is impermissible “sex stereotyping.” Second, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of associational discrimination based on sex.

Ultimate Case of Sex Stereotyping

In its discussion of “sex stereotyping,” the Court relied on the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, which recognized that discrimination based on an employee’s failure to act in a manner that was stereotypical of his or her sex was prohibited as sex discrimination under Title VII. In that case, Hopkins had alleged that her employer was discriminating only against women who behaved in what her employer viewed as too “masculine” by not wearing makeup, jewelry, and traditional female clothing. The Seventh Circuit stated that Hively “represents the ultimate case of failure to conform to the female stereotype (at least as understood in a place such as modern America, which views heterosexuality as the norm and other forms of sexuality as exceptional): she is not heterosexual.”  Finding that Hively was not conforming to a stereotype based on the sex of her partner, the Court ruled that employment discrimination based on Hively’s sexual orientation is actionable under Title VII.

Associational Discrimination

Hively also argued that discrimination based on sexual orientation is sex discrimination under the associational theory. After Supreme Court cases, including the Loving case in which the Court held that laws restricting the freedom to marry based on race were unconstitutional, it is accepted law that a person who is discriminated against because of the protected characteristic of a person with whom he or she associates is being disadvantaged because of her own traits. In Hively’s case, if the sex of her partner (female rather than male) led to her being treated unfavorably in the workplace, then that distinction is “because of sex.” The Seventh Circuit stated: “No matter which category is involved, the essence of the claim is that the plaintiff would not be suffering the adverse action had his or her sex, race, color, national origin, or religion been different.”

What This Ruling Means For Employers

For employers located in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, the Seventh Circuit’s decision is binding precedent. Employers with fifteen or more employees (and hence covered by Title VII) in those states should update their policies and practices immediately to ensure that they do not permit discrimination, harassment, or retaliation on the basis of sexual orientation.

For employers located outside of those three states, existing court rulings denying application of Title VII to sexual orientation employment discrimination claims still apply. That said, the tide is turning. Indeed, as Judge Posner explained in his concurrence, as the courts have continued to grapple with the scope of Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination, they have failed “to maintain a plausible, defensible line between sex discrimination and sexual-orientation discrimination” and begun to realize that “homosexuality is nothing worse than failing to fulfill stereotypical gender roles.” Other courts are beginning to reach the same conclusion. The Chief Judge of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in a recent concurrence, noted significant merit to the arguments that sexual-orientation discrimination was a form of impermissible sex discrimination and invited his court to reconsider the issue: “I respectfully think that in the context of an appropriate case our Court should consider reexamining the holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims are not cognizable under Title VII.” Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, No. 16-748 (7th Cir. Mar. 27, 2017).

Beyond the judicial realm, many state and local anti-discrimination laws explicitly cover sexual orientation discrimination and the EEOC continutes to take the position that Title VII prohibits sexual-orientation discrimination. Should the U.S. Supreme Court take up the issue or Congress pass legislation amending Title VII, we may get a uniform nationwide interpretation of “sex discrimination” under Title VII. Until that occurs, employers are on notice that they cannot safely rely on existing case law to conclude that sexual-orientation discrimination is permissible under Title VII.