March 13, 2018

Physician’s Noncompete Unenforceable After He Dissents To Merger

By Mark Wiletsky

Are physician noncompete agreements enforceable? They can be, depending on the circumstances, though there are few reported decisions in Colorado analyzing such agreements. In one recent case, the Colorado Court of Appeals concluded that, following a merger, the surviving physicians entity could not enforce a noncompete provision against a dissenting shareholder-physician. The Court also concluded that an amount of damages calculated under a liquidated damages clause in the agreement must be reasonably related to an actual injury suffered by the entity as a result of the physician’s departure and competition, not simply a prospective injury estimated at the time the contract was created. Crocker v. Greater Colorado Anesthesia, P.C., 2018 COA 33.

Noncompete and Liquidated Damages Provision

Anesthesiologist Michael Crocker was a shareholder in, and employee of, Greater Colorado Anesthesia, P.C. (Old GCA). In April 2013, Dr. Crocker signed a shareholder employment agreement with Old GCA that contained a noncompete provision. In relevant part, the noncompete stated that if Dr. Crocker competed with Old GCA by participating in the practice of anesthesia within fifteen miles of a hospital serviced by Old GCA in the two years following termination of the agreement, he would be liable for liquidated damages as calculated by a stated formula. The restricted geographic area included nearly all of the Denver metro area, from Broomfield on the north to Castle Rock on the south. The agreement further stated that the liquidated damages provision would survive termination of the agreement for a period of two years, or until all amounts due by the employee to the company were paid in full.

Physician Objects To Merger

In January 2015, the shareholder-physicians of Old GCA faced a vote on whether to approve a merger that would result in a 90-doctor corporation. In exchange for accepting a 21.3% reduction in pay and making a five-year employment commitment, the shareholder-physicians would receive a substantial lump sum of cash plus stock. Dr. Crocker voted against the merger and provided notice under Colorado law that he would demand payment for his share of Old GCA in exercise of his dissenter’s rights. The other shareholder-physicians approved the merger resulting in a new corporation (New GCA).

Dr. Crocker never worked at New GCA. In March 2015, he signed an employment agreement with a different anesthesia group that included providing services at Parker Adventist Hospital, which was within GCA’s noncompete restricted area. Old GCA sent him $100 for his share in the group, which he refused. New GCA sought to enforce Dr. Crocker’s noncompete provision, seeking liquidated damages under the stated formula, while Dr. Crocker sought a higher valuation of his share in Old GCA.

Physician’s Shareholder Rights Were Intertwined With Employee Rights

The Colorado Court of Appeals noted that generally, a noncompete provision will survive a merger, allowing the surviving entity to enforce the noncompete restrictions. But it drew a line in Dr. Crocker’s scenario, finding that his shareholder rights were wed to his rights as an employee. He could not be an employee without being a shareholder, and he could not be a shareholder without being an employee. Consequently, when he exercised his dissenter’s rights in opposing the merger and sought payment for his share in Old GCA, Dr. Crocker was forced to quit his employment with GCA. Therefore, the Court stated that it could not construe the enforceability of the noncompete provision without consideration of Dr. Crocker’s rights as a dissenter. Finding no prior authority evaluating a noncompete under such circumstances, the Court decided that it could only enforce the noncompete if it is reasonable, and to be reasonable, it must not impose hardship on the employee.

Noncompete Unreasonable Due to Hardship on Employee

Because an anesthesiologist must live within approximately 30 minutes of where he or she works, enforcement of the Old GCA noncompete provision against Dr. Crocker would require that he either move outside of the restricted geographic area or pay liquidated damages to GCA. The Court stated that enforcement in that circumstance would “further penalize [Dr.] Crocker’s exercise of his right to dissent, rather than protect him from the conduct of the majority.” The Court ruled that the noncompete provision imposed a hardship on Dr. Crocker and therefore was unreasonable. Read more >>

March 7, 2018

Federal Appeals Court Rules Sexual Orientation Discrimination Violates Title VII

By Cecilia Romero

Overturning prior precedent, the full panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII. Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc.. With this landmark ruling, the Second Circuit joins the Seventh Circuit in extending Title VII sex discrimination protection to employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, this opinion further highlights a split in circuits over this issue—the Eleventh Circuit which holds the opposite. The EEOC has taken the position consistent with the Second Circuit.

Facts of Case

Donald Zarda, who worked for Altitude Express as a skydiving instructor in New York, was gay. To preempt any discomfort his female students might feel being strapped to an unfamiliar man, Zarda often disclosed he was gay. Before one particular tandem jump with a female student, Zarda told her that he was gay and had an ex-husband to prove it. After the successful skydive, the student told her boyfriend that Zarda had inappropriately touched her and disclosed his sexual orientation to excuse his behavior. The woman’s boyfriend told Zarda’s boss, who fired Zarda shortly thereafter. Zarda denied touching the student inappropriately and believed that he was fired solely because of his reference to his sexual orientation.

After filing with the EEOC, Zarda filed a lawsuit against his former employer in federal court asserting, among other claims, that his firing violated Title VII under a sex stereotyping theory as well as violating New York law (which prohibits sexual orientation discrimination). In March 2014, the district court granted summary judgment to Altitude Express on his Title VII claim, stating that he failed to establish a prima facie case of gender stereotyping discrimination.

Zarda appealed, pointing to a 2015 EEOC decision that held that allegations of sexual orientation discrimination state a claim of discrimination on the basis of sex and therefore, violate Title VII. In April 2017, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit refused to reverse the lower court’s ruling on Zarda’s Title VII claim because it was bound by the Circuit’s prior precedent in which the court had ruled that discrimination based on “sex” did not encompass discrimination based on sexual orientation. The three-judge panel noted, however, that the full court sitting en banc could overturn its earlier precedent and subsequently ordered a rehearing so that the full court could determine whether to sexual orientation was prohibited under Title VII.

Sexual Orientation Discrimination Recognized as Sex Discrimination Claim

In deciding whether Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, the full Second Circuit Court of Appeals examined the phrase “because of . . . sex” as used in Title VII. The Court stated that Congress had intended to make sex irrelevant to employment decisions, leading the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently to prohibit discrimination based not only on sex itself, but also on traits that are a function of sex, such as non-conformity with gender norms. The Second Circuit concluded that sexual orientation is a function of sex, because one cannot fully define a person’s sexual orientation without identifying his or her sex. The Court wrote, “Logically, because sexual orientation is a function of sex and sex is a protected characteristic under Title VII, it follows that sexual orientation is also protected.”

The Court also concluded that sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination by considering associational discrimination. Pointing to decisions where courts have held that an employer may violate Title VII if it takes action against an employee because of the employee’s association with a person of another race, the Court extended that prohibition to address when an adverse action is taken against an employee because his or her romantic association with a person of the same sex.

Some judges on the Second Circuit dissented, writing that the drafters of Title VII included “sex” in the civil rights law in order to “secure the rights of women to equal protection in employment” with no intention of prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The majority of the judges respectfully disagreed.

What Employers Need to Know

Because the Eleventh Circuit (which includes Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) refused to recognize a Title VII claim for sexual orientation discrimination in 2017, the split in the circuit courts make this issue ripe for consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, until the Supreme Court is presented with, and agrees to hear, a case raising this issue, we are left with varying protections in different jurisdictions.

Employers with operations located in the Second and Seventh Circuits, which have recognized sexual orientation discrimination as prohibited by Title VII, should update their policies and practices to reflect that protected category. That means, employees located in New York, Vermont, Connecticut, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana are protected against harassment, discrimination, and retaliation on the basis of sexual orientation under federal law.

Employers also need to comply with state and local laws that may prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. At present, approximately 20 states plus the District of Columbia have laws banning private employers from engaging in sexual orientation discrimination. Additional states ban such discrimination by government employers. And more and more cities and counties are enacting ordinances to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. To ensure compliance, employers may wish to implement policies prohibiting such discrimination regardless of jurisdiction. Otherwise, employers are forced to examine the laws applicable to each of their locations and alter their policies accordingly.

February 27, 2018

Colorado General Assembly To Consider Immigration, Paid FMLA, and Other Employment Bills

Emily Hobbs-Wright

By Emily Hobbs-Wright

The Colorado General Assembly convened on January 10, 2018 for its regular session. Between now and its scheduled May 9, 2018 adjournment date, the House and Senate will consider numerous employment-related bills. Although some may not get out of committee, and others may not get enough votes to pass, the bills highlighted here provide a glimpse into what our legislature may be considering for our state’s employers.

Immigrant Work-Status Bill

Introduced on February 5, 2018, House Bill18-1230 would create a purple card program that would allow certain persons who came to the United States without legal documentation to work legally in Colorado. To be eligible for the program, a person must have no felony convictions for the three years immediately prior to their application, and they must either have been brought to the U.S. as a minor, or paid state income taxes for the two years immediately prior to their application to the program. Sponsored by Representative Dan Pabon (D-Denver), the bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.

FAMLI Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program

House Bill18-1001 would create the family and medical leave insurance program (FAMLI) within the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The program would offer partial wage-replacement benefits to eligible employees who need to take leave from work because they are unable to work due to a serious health condition or need to care for a new child or a family member with a serious health condition.

The program would be funded through employee contributions, based on a percentage of the employee’s annual wages, not to initially exceed 0.99%. The premiums would be deposited into the FAMLI fund to be paid out to eligible individuals. As introduced, the bill would apply to all employers in the state engaged in activities affecting commerce and only requires that the employer have at least one employee to be covered. The maximum number of weeks of FAMLI benefits payable to an eligible individual would be 12 weeks in any year. The bill has been assigned to the Finance Committee. Although the bill has a decent chance of passing the House, it will likely face opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Non-Compete Exemption for Physician To Provide Continuing Care For Rare Disorders

Colorado’s statute that governs non-compete agreements specifically addresses non-competes for physicians. C.R.S. §8-2-113. Although covenants not to compete that restrict a physician’s post-employment ability to practice medicine are void, agreements may require a physician to pay damages in an amount reasonably related to the injury suffered by reason of the termination of the agreement are enforceable. Senate Bill18-082 would create an exemption allowing a physician, after termination of an agreement, to continue to care for any patient with a rare disorder without liability for damages. As of the time of this writing, the bill has passed the Second Reading in the Senate. It needs to pass on Third Reading before heading to the House.

Minimum Wage Waiver

House Bill18-1106, introduced by Representative Dave Williams (R-El Paso), would allow an applicant for employment, or a current employee to negotiate a different minimum wage than what is required under the Colorado Constitution. The bill would require employers to post a notice informing employees of the right to negotiate wages. Unsurprisingly, this bill already failed in committee.  (Employers should remember that neither an employer nor an employee has the authority to waive minimum wage and overtime pay under federal or state wage law.)

Right-to-Work Bill

Although dead on arrival, Representative Justin Everett  (R-Jefferson) introduced a right-to-work bill, House Bill 19-1030, that would prohibit employees from being required to join, remain in, or pay dues to a union as a condition of employment. Similar bills have been introduced almost every session, and like those before it, this one was shot down. The bill was rejected in committee and will not make it to the House floor for a vote. With Democrats controlling the Colorado House, there is virtually no chance that a right-to-work bill would see the light of day.

More To Come

We will continue to monitor labor and employment developments at the Colorado legislature and will report back in future posts.

February 21, 2018

Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Protection Extends Only to Employees Who Report to SEC

By Brian Neil Hoffman and Jeremy Ben Merkelson

Brian Neil Hoffman

The United States Supreme Court today narrowed the universe of plaintiffs who can claim protection under the whistleblower anti-retaliation provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank). In a unanimous decision, the Court held that employees are not protected under Dodd-Frank unless they report information relating to a violation of the securities laws to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Employees who only report violations internally within their company, therefore, are not protected by Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provisions.

Statutory Whistleblower Definition Applies 

Jeremy Ben Merkelson

Dodd-Frank defines a “whistleblower” as someone who provides pertinent information “to the Commission” (SEC). Yet this clear language becomes less certain because Dodd-Frank protects “whistleblowers” for engaging in certain specified conduct, including making reports to non-SEC individuals, such as a company supervisor.

In today’s decision in Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Somers, the Court concluded that Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provision applies only to employees who fall within the definition of a whistleblower and have engaged in one of the specified types of conduct. As a result, individuals who have not reported to the SEC are, by definition, not Dodd-Frank whistleblowers protected under the act’s anti-retaliation provision. Stated differently, an employee who makes an internal report of securities violations, or an external report to any entity other than the SEC, is not a whistleblower under Dodd-Frank.

Internal Reports of Securities Violations Not Protected

In the case before the Supreme Court, employee Paul Somers reported to senior management at his employer, Digital Realty Trust, Inc., that he suspected violations of securities laws being made by the company. He did not report his suspicions to the SEC. Shortly thereafter, Digital Realty terminated his employment. Somers sued Digital Realty alleging that he was protected from retaliation under the whistleblower protections of Dodd-Frank.

Digital Realty argued that Somers was not a whistleblower under Dodd-Frank because he failed to report to the SEC prior to his termination. A federal district court judge in San Francisco and a divided panel in the Ninth Circuit disagreed with Digital Realty and denied dismissal of Somers’ claim. Judge Ginsburg’s opinion for the Supreme Court, siding with Digital Realty, settles this issue after courts addressing this same issue in other cases reached differing results from Texas to New York to California. It is now clear that a plaintiff cannot claim whistleblower retaliation under Dodd-Frank without having reported to the SEC before suffering adverse conduct by an employer.

Employer Takeaways

This decision presents a mixed bag for employers. On the one hand, the decision is good news for employers because the ruling narrows the scope of protections available under Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provisions. Dodd-Frank contains multiple plaintiff-friendly provisions – including immediate access to federal court, a generous statute of limitations (at least six years), and the opportunity to recover double back pay. Yet these benefits are now only available to a, presumably, smaller number of potential plaintiffs who actually report to the SEC.

On other hand, there are many reasons for employers to be wary of the ruling. Rather than incentivize employees to report their suspected concerns internally, today’s decision heavily encourages potential whistleblowers to report their concerns directly to the SEC – before any adverse action occurs, but also before employers have had the chance to hear, investigate, and address their potential concerns. Indeed, when an internal report does arrive, it may be safest for employers to assume that the SEC already has that same report. Notably, individuals who report their concerns internally may still assert retaliation claims under Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), which itself provides significant monetary recovery in the form of back pay with interest, reinstatement, and other costs.

As a result, employers should remain vigilant about avoiding retaliation when reports about potential concerns arise. Employers should also consider engaging in a timely and proactive response to potential concerns, often in consultation with outside counsel and which may include an appropriate and comprehensive investigation and remediation of the matter.

January 25, 2018

Supreme Court Denies Review of FLSA Joint-Employer Test

By Jeremy Ben Merkelson

It seems like an easy question: who is an “employer” liable for paying minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA or Act)? The answer is not always straightforward when there are two potential joint employers, at least in part since the law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction on this important issue.

The parties to a recent case were looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the issue and establish a nationwide joint-employer test. But earlier this month, the Supreme Court denied a petition to hear the case of Hall v DirecTV which would have allowed the Court to weigh in on the joint-employer issue.

How Joint-Employment Situations Arise

Many businesses and industries face joint-employer situations, including the construction industry, government contractors, franchisors, and other related entities. In addition, organizations that use intermediaries such as staffing agencies, employee leasing companies, and professional employer organizations (PEOs) to recruit, hire, and administer workers also could be subject to joint-employment situations.

In Hall, thousands of technicians who installed and repaired satellite systems for DirecTV customers nationwide were classified and paid as independent contractors. DirecTV contracted with numerous intermediary entities known as Home Service Providers and Secondary Service Providers (Providers) to obtain technicians. Over time, DirecTV acquired some of these Providers and others remained independent. These Providers served as middle-managers between DirecTV and the individual technicians, implementing and enforcing DirecTV’s hiring criteria, relaying scheduling decisions from DirecTV using DirecTV’s centralized work-assignment system, maintaining files on each technician, and otherwise supervising the technicians.

In their lawsuit against DirecTV and their respective Providers, the technicians alleged that they should have been treated as employees rather than independent contractors, seeking to hold both DirecTV and the Providers jointly liable for unpaid overtime pay and minimum wage violations. In their complaint, the technicians asserted that DirecTV dictated nearly every aspect of their work through agreements with the Providers that directly employed the technicians. They alleged that the agreement required technicians to purchase and wear DirecTV shirts, carry DirecTV identification cards, display the DirecTV logo on their vehicles, review DirecTV training materials, follow DirecTV’s standardized policies and procedures, and receive their work assignments through DirecTV’s system. In addition, they asserted that DirecTV employees exercised quality control over the technicians’ work, imposing compensation-related penalties for unsatisfactory service and allowing DirecTV to effectively terminate technicians by not assigning them any work orders through the company’s system.

The technicians filed FLSA collective-action lawsuits against DirecTV in courts across the United States. In the case brought in Maryland, a federal judge dismissed the case on the pleadings, ruling that the technicians had failed to adequately allege facts showing that DirecTV was a joint employer since DirecTV did not directly hire or fire the technicians and DirecTV did not otherwise control their compensation.

Fourth Circuit Court Takes Expansive Approach

On appeal, a Fourth Circuit panel reversed, concluding that the technicians had alleged sufficient facts based on a more lenient standard for joint employment. Disregarding the approach in other jurisdictions, the Hall court held that the focus for joint employment should not be on each employment relationship as it exists between the worker and the party asserted to be a joint employer. Rather, relying on a particular DOL regulation, the court said the appropriate analysis is whether the two putative joint employers are “not completely disassociated” with respect to the worker. Accordingly, the Hall approach involves a “two-step framework” where the court (1) determines whether the two putative employers “codetermined the key terms and conditions of a worker’s employment” and (2) if the answer is yes to the first inquiry, the court then asks whether “the two entities’ combined influence over the essential terms and conditions of the worker’s employment render the worker an employee as opposed to an independent contractor.”

The Hall “not completely dissociated” standard is at odds with the majority approach in eight other circuits and trial courts in Colorado (although no Tenth Circuit case has addressed this issue) which follow the “economic realities” test for joint employment – a direct examination of the employment relationship as it exists between the worker and each putative employer. Courts apply different and varying factors in applying the economic realities analysis across the United States, weighing as many as ten different factors such as the power to hire and fire workers, the permanence of the working relationship, and control over work schedules, payroll, benefits, and employment records. The overarching concern is whether the alleged employer possesses direct or indirect power to control significant aspects of the worker’s employment.

Given the Fourth Circuit’s departure from the majority approach, DirecTV appeared to have a good chance at getting the Supreme Court to take up the joint-employer issue, but the Court denied review. That lets the Fourth Circuit’s decision stand, leading to a much lower bar for plaintiffs in the Fourth Circuit. Read more >>

January 23, 2018

New HHS Conscience and Religious Freedom Division to Aid Healthcare Workers With Moral Objections


Steven T. Collis

By Steven T. Collis

This week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it created a new division within its Office for Civil Rights to “restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom.” The new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division intends to vigorously enforce existing federal laws that protect healthcare workers who object to performing or assisting with services on the basis of their religious or moral beliefs. With increased attention and support for such objections, healthcare facilities and employers need to be prepared in how to respond when an employee objects or refuses to perform certain procedures.

Conscience and Religious Freedom Protections

The new HHS Division expects to increase enforcement of existing religious protections for health and human services providers. Existing federal laws offer conscience protections to health care providers who refuse to perform, accommodate, or assist with certain health care services on religious or moral grounds. These existing laws include protections related to providing sterilization, abortion, assisted suicide, and related training and research activities.

Existing federal laws also prohibit discrimination in employment for recipients of HHS federal financial assistance, under laws such as the Social Security Act, the Public Health Service Act, and the Family Violence Prevention and Service Act. These provisions protect health care workers from employment discrimination, including religious discrimination, related to federally-funded programs such as the Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant, Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, and Community Mental Health Services Block Grant and Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grants.

In the prior administration, many of these protections were not prioritized. Under the new rule, the Office of Civil Rights “will have the authority to initiate compliance reviews, conduct investigations, supervise and coordinate compliance by the Department and its components, and use enforcement tools otherwise available in civil rights law to address violations and resolve complaints.” As part of that authority, the Office may require, for certain recipients of federal money, that they keep more robust records; cooperate with investigations, reviews, and other enforcement actions; provide assurances and certifications of compliance; and issue notices to their employees regarding their conscience and anti-discrimination rights.

What This Means For Healthcare Providers and Their Employers

The increased enforcement of religious and moral protections anticipated by the new HHS division may empower more healthcare workers to express objections to perform or be involved with certain procedures or services. Healthcare employers should have a plan in place for how to respond to such objections. That plan should include providing reasonable accommodations to objecting workers, which involves documenting the objection, analyzing how to transfer duties to another worker, determining whether objectors need to be reassigned, and establishing how communications to co-workers will be handled. These can be sensitive discussions so healthcare facilities need to consider how to address these issues in advance. In particular, employers must learn how to accommodate the workers’ objection without adversely affecting their position, as the adverse action could potentially be seen as discriminatory based on the worker’s religious beliefs.

Finally, it will be important that healthcare employers keep proper records regarding their compliance efforts and stay abreast of what notices they are required to provide their workers and the government. Employers should keep a watchful eye to ensure they know precisely what will be required of them in the months ahead.

January 11, 2018

EEOC Reveals Its Strategy For Upcoming Years; Will Review Public Comments

Little V. West

By Little V. West

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued its draft strategic plan for fiscal years (FY) 2018-2022. Because the strategic plan outlines the agency’s priorities for enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the upcoming years, employers can learn a great deal about the types of discrimination and class actions the EEOC will pursue and litigate to further its agenda. Let’s look at highlights of the draft plan to see where the EEOC intends to focus its resources.

Substantive Area Priorities

In its draft strategic plan for upcoming years, the EEOC makes some changes to the substantive areas of law that encompasses its priorities for enforcement efforts. First, it adds two new priorities under the Emerging and Developing Issues area. The agency will look to address discriminatory practices against those who are Muslim or Sikh, or persons of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asia descent, particularly protecting members of these groups from backlash following tragic events in the U.S. and the rest of the world. The agency also will look to clarify the employment relationship and the application of anti-discrimination laws to the evolving employment relationships related to temporary workers, staffing agencies, independent contractors, and the on-demand economy (e.g., Uber, Airbnb, freelancers, and other economic models that do not have a traditional employment relationship).

Second, the priorities under the Americans with Disabilities Act will be narrowed to focus on qualification standards and inflexible leave policies that discriminate against individuals with disabilities.

Third, in the area of Immigrant, Migrant, and Other Vulnerable Workers, the EEOC will look to its district offices and the agency’s federal sector program to identify vulnerable workers and underserved communities in their area. For example, the EEOC states that some district offices may focus on employment discrimination against members of Native American tribes, where those groups have local issues of concern.

Fourth, the EEOC proposes to expand its priority on equal pay to go beyond discrimination based on sex, but to address compensation systems and practices that discrimination based on race, ethnicity, age, individuals with disabilities, and other protected groups. Consequently, addressing and remedying pay discrimination is intended to reach all workers, not just those paid differently because of their gender.

Fifth, the agency will focus on preserving access to the legal system and challenging practices that limit workers’ substantive rights or impede the EEOC’s investigative or enforcement efforts. In particular, the EEOC intends to focus on overly broad waivers and releases of claims. It will also target overly broad mandatory arbitration provisions. In addition, the agency looks to focus on significant retaliatory practices that dissuade other employees from exercising their rights.

Finally, the EEOC will continue to make it a priority to prevent systematic workplace harassment. Given the current environment that has shed new light on sexual harassment, the EEOC will look specifically to claims that raise a policy, practice, or pattern of harassment.

Strategy Leads to Priority Handling and Litigation

Because of limited resources, the EEOC will use its strategic priorities to guide its charge handling, investigations, and litigation. If a charge raises a substantive area priority, it will be given priority in charge handling. Cases with strong evidence in substantive priority areas will be given precedence in the selection of cases for litigation. In general, the agency looks to its strategic plan to offer a more targeted approach to its enforcement efforts.

Integrating EEOC Efforts Across The Agency

In addition to the substantive priority areas, the EEOC states that it is committed to using an integrated approach to consider ideas, strategies and best practices across the agency. It looks to reinforce consultation and collaboration between the investigative staff and the EEOC’s lawyers who litigate the cases. It also looks to increase the collaborative efforts between the federal and private sector staff, especially with respect to protecting LGBT workers. It also looks to enhance a coordinated and consistent nation message when it comes to education and outreach activities.

Next Steps

The EEOC accepted comments from interested parties on its draft strategic plan through January 8, 2018. The agency is expected to review submissions and approve its final version of the plan in the coming months.

January 8, 2018

Confidential Sexual Harassment Settlements No Longer Tax Deductible

Steven Gutierrez

By Steve Gutierrez

The recently enacted tax reform bill contains a short provision that could significantly affect whether and how employers settle sexual harassment claims. Section 13307 of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act states that no deduction is allowed for any settlement or payment related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse if the settlement or payment is subject to a nondisclosure agreement. The new provision also prohibits a tax deduction for attorney’s fees related to confidential sexual harassment settlements or payments.

Deductibility Hinges On Confidentiality of Settlement

The new tax provision eliminates a tax deduction for sexual harassment-related settlements only if the settlement or payment is subject to a nondisclosure agreement. In other words, if an employer requires the alleged victim of sexual harassment or abuse to keep the settlement (and presumably the underlying claim) confidential, then the amount of the payment and any attendant attorney’s fees are not tax deductible. Sexual harassment/abuse settlements and related attorney’s fees remain tax deductible if they are not subject to a nondisclosure agreement.

The policy behind this provision appears to be in response to the recent spate of sexual harassment and abuse claims coming to light. The “#MeToo” campaign has raised significant concerns about companies and their high-level employees hiding behind nondisclosure agreements to avoid public scrutiny about unlawful sexual conduct in the workplace. Repeat offenders often keep their jobs when their employers pay off the victims in secret. By eliminating the tax deduction for confidential settlements and related attorney’s fees, companies will be forced to weigh confidentiality against tax deductibility when deciding whether to settle each claim.

What If Sexual Harassment/Abuse Is Only One of Multiple Claims Being Settled?

One of the questions left unanswered in this new tax reform provision is what happens to the tax deduction for payments that settle more than one kind of employment claim. In many cases, the victim of sexual harassment or sexual abuse brings other claims against his or her employer, such as retaliation, gender discrimination, violation of the Equal Pay Act, or defamation. The language of the provision is unclear as to what is meant by any settlement or payment related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse. One could argue that a retaliation claim that arose from an adverse action following a complaint of sexual misconduct would be related to the sexual harassment claim. But what about an Equal Pay Act claim? Is that related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse?

It is unclear whether confidential settlement payments related to these other types of employment claims will remain tax deductible when lumped in with a sexual harassment settlement. This open question will likely lead employers to separate settlement agreements and payments for non-sexual harassment claims in order to keep the settlement of these other types of claims confidential and tax deductible. It also could lead employers (on likely advice from their attorneys) to structure settlements of multiple claims with an allocation of only a small amount, say $100, to the settlement of the sexual harassment claim, with the remainder of any settlement payment attributed to other types of claims alleged by the victim. Absent any clarification on this issue, we expect this will be the subject of much litigation down the road. In the meantime, companies and their attorneys likely will use creative drafting of settlements to try to separate unrelated claims in order to keep the settlement of non-sexual-harassment claims confidential and retain the deductibility of payments and attorney’s fees incurred for non-harassment matters.

Deductibility of Victim’s Attorney’s Fees

Another open question is whether the denial of deductibility applies only to the companies making settlement payments and their own attorney’s fees related to such settlements, or if it applies to the attorney’s fees incurred by the victim as well. The new provision denying deductibility for settlements subject to nondisclosure agreements amends section 162 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) which is the section that allows deductions for ordinary and necessary trade or business expenses paid or incurred during the course of a taxable year. Generally, an individual would not be able to take a business deduction under IRC Section 162. However, the language in the new provision does not make it clear that it applies only to the business’s own attorney’s fees, thus leaving open an interpretation that it also prohibits the victim of sexual harassment or sexual abuse from deducting his or her attorney’s fees related to settlements of such claims. It also could be interpreted to deny the deduction to a business that pays the victim’s attorney’s fees as part of a confidential settlement.

This could hit victims hard as those who sign nondisclosure agreements may have to pay taxes on the entire settlement, including any amounts paid to cover his or her attorney’s fees. Or, it could lead victims to reject any settlement containing a nondisclosure provision in order to avoid paying taxes on the attorney’s fee portion of the settlement payment.  It also may make employers less likely to agree to pay the victim’s attorney’s fees as part of a confidential settlement because the total amount of fees paid to attorneys on both sides would not be deductible as a business expense. It is unclear whether Congress meant to hamstring victims in this way, or if it was the result of inarticulate drafting. We will have to see whether a correction or guidance is issued to clarify how the new denial of deductibility provision affects a victim’s ability to deduct attorney’s fees.

Get Advice Before Settling

The denial of deductibility provision affects any amounts paid or incurred after December 22, 2017 (when the tax reform act became effective). This makes one thing about this new tax deduction provision clear – employers should get advice from competent counsel and tax professionals before settling any sexual harassment or sexual abuse claims. Employers will need to evaluate each case individually to decide whether confidentiality trumps deductibility. Then, after the employer decides whether to impose a nondisclosure requirement on the alleged victim of sexual harassment/abuse, the settlement agreement must be drafted carefully in light of this new provision. If the victim asserts multiple claims, employers may be able to keep the settlement of non-harassment claims both confidential and deductible, if the settlement agreement is drafted correctly.

The bottom line is seek advice early and don’t use boilerplate settlement agreements without considering the tax deductibility consequences of nondisclosure provisions.

January 4, 2018

Tip-Pooling Regulation May Change Under DOL Proposal

Rebecca Hudson

By Rebecca Hudson

The Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) seeks to rescind a 2011 tip-pooling regulation that prohibits sharing of tips among employees who are not customarily tipped employees. Under a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued in early December 2017, the WHD proposes to eliminate restrictions on the sharing of customer tips in certain circumstances.

2011 Tip-Ownership Regulation

Revised in 2011, the DOL regulation at issue limits what employers may and may not do with tips. That regulation states:

Tips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer has taken a tip credit under section 3(m) of the FLSA. The employer is prohibited from using an employee’s tips, whether or not it has taken a tip credit, for any reason other than that which is statutorily permitted in section 3(m): As a credit against its minimum wage obligations to the employee, or in furtherance of a valid tip pool.

29 C.F.R. § 531.52 (2011).

In essence, this provision means that even if an employer pays its tipped employees the mandatory minimum wage (currently $7.25 per hour federally), the employer may not keep any of the tips for itself or set up a tip pool that includes employees who are not regularly tipped.

Proposal To Eliminate Tip Ownership Rule When Employer Pays Full Minimum Wage

The WHD intends to remove the limitations on an employer’s use of tips, but only when the employer pays its tipped employees a direct cash wage of at least the full minimum wage. In other words, if an employer pays its tipped employees at least $7.25 per hour (or a higher applicable state or local minimum wage) for all hours worked, then the employer may reallocate tips as it sees fit. This would allow employers to include non-tipped workers, such as dishwashers and cooks, in a tip pool. It may even allow employers to keep tips for itself.

Notably, the proposed change does not apply to employers who take a tip credit. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers of “tipped employees” may pay a reduced federal hourly wage of $2.13 per hour as long as those employees receive sufficient tips to raise their earnings to the $7.25 hourly minimum. Employers who take advantage of this tip credit to pay a lower cash wage to its tipped employees would still be subject to the limitation on the sharing of tips under the tip-ownership regulation.

Courts Have Invalidated The 2011 Limits on Tip Ownership

Following the 2011 tip-ownership regulation, employers and employees have been litigating various tip pooling and tip retention arrangements, resulting in numerous courts ruling that the DOL exceeded its authority in enacting the regulation or incorrectly interpreted the FLSA when placing the tip ownership restrictions on employers who paid the full minimum wage. A recent case from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions apply to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma) illustrates the issue. In that case, employer Relish Catering regularly added customer gratuities to the customer’s final catering bill. Relish retained those tips for itself rather than passing them along to its employees who worked at the events. Relish paid its employees $12 per hour for all hours up to forty hours per week, and $18 per hour for overtime, and did not rely on any sort of tip credit to meet the minimum wage.

The Tenth Circuit ruled that the FLSA tip-credit provision does not require that employers turn over all tips to employees in all circumstances. Instead, it held that when an employer does not take the tip credit, the tip-credit provision imposes no restrictions on what the employer may do with tips as long as it pays an hourly wage above the $7.25 minimum. The Court found nothing in the FLSA that directed the DOL to regulate the ownership of tips when the employer does not take the tip credit. Because the FLSA limits the tip restrictions to employers who take the tip credit, the Court ruled that the DOL lacked the authority to regulate otherwise. Marlow v. New Food Guy, Inc., 861 F.3d 1157 (10th Cir. 2017). Read more >>

January 2, 2018

Sexual Harassment – Employers Should Act Now

By Mark Wiletsky

Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, politicians from both sides of the aisle – the list of prominent individuals accused of sexual harassment and assault continues to grow. And as sexual harassment dominates the headlines, workers are coming forward in increasing numbers to describe inappropriate sexual conduct in the workplace.

This heightened awareness by both the public and employees should make every employer pause to consider if it is doing enough to keep employees safe and free from harassment. Here are our recommendations for steps you should take right now to help prevent your organization from appearing in the headlines.

Have a Strong Anti-Harassment Policy

Every employer should have a written policy that prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. If you do not have one, you should strongly consider implementing one to ensure your employees know that sexual harassment is absolutely prohibited. If you already have one, review it to ensure that it includes the following provisions:

  • zero tolerance for unlawful harassment and inappropriate sexual conduct in the workplace
  • examples of unacceptable physical conduct, such as unwelcome touching, hugging, kissing, groping, and gestures, as well as inappropriate verbal or visual conduct, such as sexual jokes, emails, cartoons, pictures, and propositions
  • requests for sexual favors or demands to engage in intimate relationships will not tolerated
  • policy applies to inappropriate conduct by managers, co-workers, vendors, customers, and others who come into contact with your employees
  • every employee is expected to report any harassment that he or she experiences or witnesses
  • reporting mechanism that offers two or more reporting channels (such as a supervisor and the human resources manager)
  • commitment to take complaints seriously through timely and thorough investigation
  • no retaliation or adverse consequences will occur to those who report sexual harassment or cooperate in any investigation or proceeding
  • employees found to have engaged in sexual harassment or other inappropriate conduct will be subject to discipline, up to and including termination.

Train Both Managers and Employees

A policy does little good if your employees are not aware of it. Take this opportunity to conduct sexual harassment training for your entire workforce. Live in-person presentations may be the best way to train your employees, allowing you to take questions and emphasize your organization’s commitment to preventing and resolving any harassment issues. If live training sessions are impossible, offer video or recorded training. Provide specialized training to your executives, managers, and supervisors so that you can stress their input in creating a culture that is free of harassment, and to help them recognize and learn how to handle harassment scenarios.

Encourage Reporting of Inappropriate Conduct 

Employees won’t report harassment to you if they feel their complaint will fall on deaf ears.
They may, instead, talk to the media or an attorney. Consequently, management and human resources professionals need to encourage reporting of workplace improprieties, no matter who it involves or how sensitive the accusation. If you do not welcome complaints, you will not have an opportunity to nip inappropriate conduct in the bud or resolve situations that could prove highly detrimental to your company. 

Investigate Every Complaint

You must treat every report of sexual misconduct or harassment seriously and conduct a timely, thorough investigation to determine whether the alleged conduct occurred. If the complaint is against your company president or another high-ranking individual, you still must investigate it in the same vigorous manner you would for any other employee accused of the misconduct. Consider whether you need to hire outside counsel or a third-party investigator to preserve privilege and to avoid allegations that the investigator was biased because he or she reports to the person accused of misconduct. Take time now to make sure you have an investigation process in place so that when a report of harassment comes in, you don’t waste time determining who does what. 

Take Prompt, Appropriate Action

As you receive a sexual harassment complaint and begin an investigation, you need to determine what action, if any, should be taken pending the investigation’s outcome. You may need to place the alleged harasser on leave, or you may need to separate workers so that they work on separate shifts or in different locations. Your duty is to stop any harassment from occurring, so take whatever steps may be necessary to do that. Then, when you have sufficient facts about the alleged harassment, determine what action is warranted to resolve it. If you conclude that harassment likely occurred, you need to impose consequences. Depending on the severity, that could mean immediate termination of employment. Remember, zero tolerance means no unlawful harassment goes unpunished.

Preventing and Resolving Sexual Harassment Should Help Keep You Out of the News

Because the topic of sexual harassment is so hot right now, take the time to recommit your organization to preventing and resolving workplace harassment by following the steps above. Your efforts now will go a long way in avoiding surprise allegations in the future.