Monthly Archives: April 2015

April 29, 2015

EEOC Conciliation Efforts Are Reviewable, Says Supreme Court

By Dustin Berger 

Employers have a narrow right to seek judicial review of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) statutory obligation to give an employer adequate notice of the charges against them, including the identity of the employees (or class of employees) claiming discrimination, and to engage in informal resolution of the charges. In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that courts have the authority to review whether the EEOC has met its duty under Title VII to attempt informal resolution of alleged discriminatory practices prior to filing suit. Mach Mining, LLC v. EEOC, 575 U.S. ___ (2015). 

While the scope of review is limited, it is good news for employers as it limits the EEOC’s ability to take high priority cases to court without first engaging in any discussion with the employer to remedy the alleged unlawful practices. Unfortunately, however, under the Supreme Court’s decision, the courts’ review of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts will be too limited to ensure that the EEOC makes a genuine and meaningful attempt to reach a voluntary resolution of a charge before the EEOC sues. 

Title VII Mandates Informal Methods of Conciliation 

Title VII, the primary federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin, sets forth a procedure to be followed by the EEOC when handling a complaint of employment discrimination. In part, the law requires that when the EEOC finds reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred, it must first attempt to eliminate the alleged unlawful practice through “informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” The EEOC may choose which informal method it chooses to attempt resolution of the charge, and the agency ultimately retains the right to accept any proposed settlement or to sue the employer. 

Letter From EEOC Without Follow-Up Was Insufficient Conciliation Effort 

In the case before the Court, a female applicant filed a charge alleging that Mach Mining, LLC had refused to hire her as a coal miner because of her sex. The EEOC investigated her charge and found reasonable cause to believe that Mach Mining had discriminated against not only that applicant, but also a class of women who had similarly applied for mining jobs. 

The EEOC sent Mach Mining a letter inviting both the company and the female applicant to participate in informal conciliation and stated that an EEOC representative would contact them soon. That never happened. Instead, about a year later, the EEOC sent Mach Mining a second letter stating that “such conciliation efforts as are required by law have occurred and have been unsuccessful” and further stated that any further efforts would be “futile.” The EEOC proceeded to sue Mach Mining in federal court alleging sex discrimination in hiring. 

Mach Mining asserted that the EEOC had failed to conciliate in good faith prior to filing suit, as was required by Title VII. Although the federal district court agreed with Mach Mining that it should review whether the EEOC had met its conciliation duty, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that decision and held that a party could not assert as a defense that the EEOC had failed to conciliate the claim as Title VII required. The Seventh Circuit explained that conciliation was solely within the EEOC’s expert judgment and that there was no workable standard that would allow judges to review that process. Furthermore, the Seventh Circuit believed that court review of conciliation would complicate Title VII lawsuits by allowing the focus of the litigation to drift from the merits of the Title VII claim to the sufficiency of the EEOC’s conciliation effort. 

Although other federal appellate courts, however, have held that Title VII does allow a court to review the EEOC’s conciliation effort, there was no uniformity among the other appellate courts in what that review should entail. The Supreme Court agreed to take the Mach Mining case to resolve whether and to what extent courts may review the EEOC’s conciliation attempts.

 

Notice to Employer and Discussion Required 

Justice Kagan, writing for a unanimous Court, first explained that courts routinely enforce compulsory prerequisites to suit in Title VII cases. Although Congress had given the EEOC wide latitude over the conciliation process, the Court refused to allow the EEOC to police itself on whether it had complied with its conciliation duty. Accordingly, it overruled the Seventh Circuit’s decision and held that courts have the authority to review whether the EEOC has fulfilled its Title VII duty to attempt conciliation of discrimination charges. 

The Court then turned to the proper standard of judicial review. In other words, it considered what the EEOC must show in order to meet its conciliation duty as a precondition to filing suit. The agency argued for minimal review, suggesting that its letters to Mach Mining were a sufficient attempt at conciliation. Mach Mining argued for a much deeper review, urging that the Court adopt a standard from the National Labor Relations Act that would require a negotiation in good faith over discrimination claims. The Court rejected both approaches and took a middle line. 

The Court explained that judicial review was available but was limited to ensuring that the EEOC provided the employer with notice and an opportunity to discuss the matter tailored to achieving voluntary compliance. The Court stated that the EEOC must inform the employer not only about the specific allegations of discrimination, but also about which employees (or what class of employees) have suffered as a result. Ordinarily, the Court noted, the EEOC’s “reasonable cause” letter will provide this notice.  Then, the EEOC must attempt to engage in some form of discussion with the employer to give the employer a chance to remedy the allegedly discriminatory practices prior to being sued. That discussion may be in written or oral form and the EEOC will retain a great deal of discretion about how to conduct its conciliation efforts and when to end them. 

Evidence of the conciliation efforts may be supported or challenged through written affidavits. Ordinarily, the EEOC’s affidavit will show it has met its conciliation duty, but employers may create a factual issue through affidavits or other credible evidence that indicates that the EEOC did not provide the requisite information about the charge or attempt to engage the employer in discussion prior to filing suit. If a reviewing court finds in the employer’s favor on such a challenge, the appropriate remedy is for the court to order the EEOC to engage in conciliation. 

Confidentiality of Conciliation 

In reaching its decision, the Court focused in part on Title VII’s non-disclosure provision. This provision states that “[n]othing said or done during and as a part of such informal endeavors may be made public by the [EEOC], its officers or employees, or used as evidence in a subsequent proceeding without the written consent of the persons concerned.” Mach Mining argued that this confidentiality provision meant only that the actions taken and statements made taken during conciliation could not be used as evidence of the merits of the claim. The Court rejected that argument and reiterated that the non-disclosure provision protects actions and statements made during conciliation from disclosure for any evidentiary purpose. And, the Court explained, the non-disclosure provision alone precluded the courts from engaging in any deeper inquiry into the EEOC’s actions during conciliation.  

What This Means For You 

As the EEOC has been aggressively pursuing employers on novel theories of discrimination, it is beneficial to have the ability to ask a court to review whether the EEOC provided proper notice of the allegedly discriminatory practice and the employees allegedly affected by it and offered the employer an effort to discuss the matter for the purpose of achieving voluntary compliance. Although this review is narrow, it is an improvement over the Seventh Circuit’s view because it gives employers a limited opportunity to hold the EEOC accountable for satisfying its statutory obligation to conciliate claims. If your organization receives a “reasonable cause” finding, be sure to track what efforts the EEOC makes to engage you in discussions to pursue voluntary compliance. If those efforts do not meet the standard announced by the Court, you can seek to compel the EEOC to make an effort compliant with its statutory obligations before it proceeds with its suit. 

What the Mach Mining decision will not do, however, is allow an employer to seek the aid of a court in requiring the EEOC to make a genuine effort to achieve a voluntary resolution of a charge. For instance, the Mach Mining decision does not require the EEOC to negotiate in good faith, apprise an employer of “the smallest remedial award the EEOC would accept,” lay out the legal and factual basis for its position or any request for a remedial award, refrain from “take-it-or-leave-it” offers, or provide any particular amount of time for an employer to consider and respond to the EEOC’s position or offers. Accordingly, you are well advised to set expectations of the conciliation process at a low threshold and, to the extent you believe voluntary resolution is desirable, take the initiative in working with the EEOC after receiving a reasonable cause determination letter.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

April 28, 2015

Retirement Plans: Proposed Changes to the Fiduciary Rules Offer An Opportunity For Introspection

Busacker_BBy Bret Busacker

The Department of Labor (DOL) recently published long-promised revisions to the rules regulating investment advisers to retirement plans and their fiduciaries, participants and beneficiaries, as well as IRAs and their owners and beneficiaries (Advice Recipients). The new proposed fiduciary regulations (2015 Proposed Rule) are the DOL’s most recent attempt to modernize long-standing labor rules that predate the creation of the 401(k) plan and the widespread use of IRAs. In 2010, the DOL attempted to revise these same regulations, but withdrew the proposed changes after receiving significant pushback from stakeholders. We’ll have to see if its second effort is more successful.

Role of Investment Advisors Are At Issue

The crux of the issue is that plan fiduciaries must act in the best interest of their Advice Recipients. Under ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code, if a fiduciary uses plan or IRA assets for their own advantage, it is a prohibited transaction. For example, a fiduciary adviser who receives compensation from a third party (i.e., the plan recordkeeper or platform provider) to recommend a particular investment to an Advice Recipient may be engaging in a prohibited transaction. Fiduciaries who are a party to a prohibited transaction may be subject to penalties and lawsuits from plan participants. 

In the past, investment advisers have navigated around this issue by serving in a non-fiduciary consulting capacity with respect to their Advice Recipients. The current long-standing regulations generally treat an adviser as a fiduciary only if the adviser enters into an agreement with an Advice Recipient to regularly provide individualized investment advice that will serve as the primary basis upon which the Advice Recipient will make investment decisions. (This is generally referred to as the “five-part test.”) Each element of the five-part test must be satisfied in order for an adviser to be considered a fiduciary. 

Investment consultants take the position that they are not fiduciaries under the five-part test because they either do not provide regular advice to the Advice Recipient or the advice they provide is not the primary basis of the Advice Recipient’s investment decision. Plans that use investment consultants who do not assume fiduciary responsibility should be aware that the 2015 Proposed Rule may ultimately characterize these consultants as fiduciaries. 

Expanded Fiduciary Activity

Under the 2015 Proposed Rule, an adviser will be a fiduciary to an Advice Recipient even if the adviser does not regularly provide investment advice to the Advice Recipient and even if the advice is not the primary basis for the Advice Recipient’s investment decision. Instead, under the 2015 Proposed Rule, an adviser may become a fiduciary if the adviser receives a fee for the advice and the adviser either (i) represents or acknowledges that he or she is acting as a fiduciary with respect to the Advice Recipient or (ii) agrees in writing or verbally to provide the Advice Recipient with advice that is individualized or specifically directed to the Advice Recipient. 

Under the 2015 Proposed Rule, investment advice generally includes:

  • a recommendation to acquire, hold, dispose or exchange an investment, including in connection with a participant’s distribution or rollover from a plan or IRA;
  • a recommendation with respect to the management of an investment, including in connection with a participant’s distribution or rollover from a plan or IRA;
  • an appraisal, fairness opinion, or similar oral or written statement concerning the value of an investment in connection with a transaction involving a plan or IRA; or
  • a recommendation to hire another service provider who will provide investment advice.

Under the 2015 Proposed Rule, a “recommendation” includes an adviser’s suggestion for the Advice Recipient to take a particular course of action with respect to an investment under the Advice Recipient’s control. 

Common Plan Administration Carve-Outs 

Notwithstanding the apparent breadth of the 2015 Proposed Rule, the rule contains a number of helpful carve-outs that identify common situations in which an adviser will not be considered a plan fiduciary, as summarized below. 

  • Providing a plan or IRA with an investment platform, provided that the recordkeeper or platform provider notifies the Advice Recipient that it is not providing investment advice or serving as a fiduciary.
  • Identifying investment options that satisfy the pre-established investment criteria of an independent plan fiduciary (e.g., expense ratios, size of fund, type of asset, etc.) and/or providing benchmarking information to the independent plan fiduciary.
  • Providing basic investment information that assists a plan in complying with reporting and disclosure requirements.
  • Providing investment education that is limited to investment concepts (e.g., risk and return, diversification and dollar-cost averaging) and objective questionnaires, worksheets and interactive software.
  • Selling investments to an Advice Recipient who has the requisite investment background and who is properly informed that the broker is not undertaking to impartially advise the plan. This carve-out generally only applies to larger retirement plans.

The 2015 Proposed Rule also provides a means by which an adviser who falls within the definition of a fiduciary may continue to receive conflict-of-interest compensation by satisfying certain safeguards and disclosure requirements.

Take Aways

The definition of a fiduciary under the 2015 Proposed Rule is quite broad and, if adopted, will certainly expand the number of advisers who are treated as adviser fiduciaries to retirement plans and IRAs. However, even if the 2015 Proposed Rule is not adopted, Advice Recipients should take this opportunity to review their relationship with their current investment adviser. If an adviser is not currently a fiduciary, but provides recommendations with respect to investments, consider asking the adviser whether he or she is able to be a fiduciary and whether changes will be required to the relationship if the rule is finalized. These questions may spark a helpful conversation that clarifies the adviser’s role and informs the Advice Recipient of whether changes to the relationship may be required (even if the rule is not finalized).

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

April 27, 2015

Combating Workplace Violence in Healthcare and Social Services Facilities

Linton_MBy Matt Linton 

Between 2011 and 2013, 70 to 74% of all reported workplace assaults occurred in healthcare and social service settings, according to statistics cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In addition, workplace assaults account for over ten percent of the injuries that result in healthcare workers missing days from work. Healthcare workers thus face a significant risk of injury at work from the violence of others and their employers are exposed to stiff penalties from OSHA if any regulations were violated in relation to the injury. 

The increased risks of violence faced by healthcare workers prompted OSHA to update its guidelines for violence prevention programs in the healthcare industry. In its Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers, OSHA sets forth employer best practices and ways in which healthcare organizations may incorporate violence prevention into their overall safety and health programs. 

Violence Prevention Programs 

OSHA advocates that healthcare organizations should adopt written workplace violence prevention programs. Such programs should offer an effective approach to reduce or eliminate the risk of violence faced by workers based on the type, size and complexity of each facility’s operation. Although each program should be individualized, focusing on processes and procedures that are suitable for the workplace in question, the basic components of an effective workplace violence prevention program should include: 

  • Commitment by management
  • Participation by employees
  • An analysis of the worksite
  • Hazard prevention and control
  • Safety and health training
  • Accurate recordkeeping, and
  • Ongoing evaluation of the program 

The new guidelines offer specific steps that healthcare employers may take to adopt, implement and evaluate their violence prevention programs. It includes charts offering possible engineering controls, such as alarm systems, exit routes, metal detectors, lighting enhancements and barrier protections. Possible suggested work practice and administrative controls include tracking patients with a known history of violence, entry procedures, employee uniform issues, incident response and high risk activity procedures and transportation concerns. In short, the guidelines provide practical, real-life suggestions for addressing workplace violence for different types of healthcare facilities. 

Workplace Violence Program Checklists 

OSHA also provides a number of comprehensive checklists to allow organizations to evaluate their workplace and determine appropriate security measures to help lessen the risk of violence in their facilities. Adaptable to all sorts of healthcare settings, the checklists will assist safety and health officers and committees to be proactive in preventing workplace violence and to conduct periodic audits of the effectiveness of their security measures. 

Update and Review Your Violence Prevention Program 

If your organization has not yet adopted a written violence prevention program, now is the time to get started. Utilize the resources provided by OSHA as a starting point to create a program that is tailored to your facility and protects your workers from harm.  Engage counsel, if necessary, to help assist you with this process. 

If your facility already has a program in place, take a look at the updated guidelines to see if additional security measures, training or prevention procedures are warranted. Your workplace violence prevention program should not sit on a shelf but instead should be reviewed and updated regularly. Doing so will help keep assaults and threatening behavior away from your employees.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

April 20, 2015

You’ve Received a Discrimination Charge from NERC or the EEOC – Don’t Throw It in the Trash!

Lane_DBy Dora Lane 

When asked about a discrimination charge sent to them months ago, a client once answered “I did not know what to do with it, so I threw it in the trash.” Needless to say, that was a bad idea. Unfortunately, many employers do not understand their obligations when faced with a discrimination charge and that can backfire if the charge is not informally resolved. 

What is a discrimination charge? 

Ordinarily, before an employee can bring a harassment, discrimination, or retaliation lawsuit in court, the employee must “exhaust their administrative remedies.” In plain English, they have to file a complaint (called a “charge”) with one of the administrative agencies responsible for enforcement of the respective employment laws before they sue the employer in court. 

In Nevada, a charge may be filed with either the Nevada Equal Rights Commission (NERC) (state administrative agency) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (federal administrative agency). Because of a work-sharing agreement between the two agencies, a charge filed with NERC is also deemed filed with the EEOC (though the opposite is not true). A charge ordinarily includes the name of the employee who submitted it, a brief summary of the employee’s allegations, and certain applicable deadlines. Where the charge is filed matters because different requirements for responding to it apply. 

What are the differences between responding to a NERC charge versus an EEOC charge? 

An employer should respond to any discrimination charge, regardless of the agency in which it was filed, or risk an adverse determination based only on the employee’s evidence. However, there are differences in the type of information you must provide and the timing of your response, depending on which agency sends you the charge. 

EEOC charge notifications are usually accompanied by Requests for Documents/Information. These requests must be answered and submitted along with a position statement addressing the allegations in the charge. The requests are frequently quite sweeping, requiring a lot of time and attention. NERC does not usually include Requests for Documents/Information in its charge notification packets. Rather, such requests may be sent – on a case-by-case basis – as part of the investigation process. (Of course, the EEOC may also request additional information during the course of its investigation.) 

Another difference is the timing of submitting a position statement if the charge proceeds to mediation (called “Informal Settlement Conference” by NERC). If you receive a charge notification from NERC, the notification comes in a packet, which also usually contains an Election of Response form. That form lets you choose whether or not you wish to participate in an Informal Settlement Conference, which is automatically scheduled on a certain date. If you do not respond by the election deadline or you decline the conference, the charge is ordinarily placed into investigation. 

Even if you choose to participate in the Informal Settlement Conference before NERC, however, you still must submit a position statement approximately a week before the conference. A potential cost-saving measure is to provide a brief, summary position statement first, in anticipation that the matter will resolve at the Informal Settlement Conference, and reserve the right to supplement at a later date in the event it does not. 

By contrast, with EEOC charges proceeding to mediation, you are only required to submit a position statement if the case does not settle during mediation. That said, in some cases, it may be useful to give the mediator a brief factual background offering your company’s perspective prior to the mediation. 

What if I did not get notice that I can mediate or participate in an Informal Settlement Conference? 

If you receive a NERC charge notification without an Election of Response form, you might consider contacting NERC to ask for one. NERC schedules Informal Settlement Conferences as a matter of course, and it is highly unusual not to be invited to one. Sometimes lack of invitation has resulted from inadvertent administrative oversight so if you want to pursue early settlement, ask for a conference. 

If you receive an EEOC charge notification that does not allow for mediation, it may stem from various reasons, which may or may not be a cause for concern. For example, there might have been an unintentional failure to check the “Mediation” box. Or, it is possible that the complaining party was not interested in mediation. Or, in the worst case scenario, the charge was not eligible for mediation because it was characterized as a “Category A” charge. “Category A” charges involve matters considered priorities by the EEOC, allegations of widespread legal violations by the employer, or other matters where the EEOC has concluded that further investigation would probably result in a cause finding (i.e., determination against the employer). 

If you are interested in mediating an EEOC charge, consider contacting the EEOC to inquire whether mediation would be available, even if the mediation box is not checked, as the EEOC’s response may offer some information as to the basis for the initial mediation unavailability. And, while the EEOC would rarely admit that the charge is “Category A,” that information might enable you to prepare for the EEOC’s upcoming investigation. 

What should I do when I get the charge?  

First and foremost, you should immediately preserve all relevant documents and information, in both paper and electronic format. You should also suspend all automatic electronic deletion policies and direct your employees not to destroy anything related to the allegations in the charge. In some cases, it may be appropriate to make forensic images of computer hard drives to preserve the integrity of metadata and other electronic information. 

Second, if an internal investigation has not already been conducted, you should investigate the complaining party’s allegations and begin gathering relevant information to prepare for defending the charge. Sometimes that includes collecting employee statements which can later be used to support your response to the charge. 

Finally, take your obligation to provide a position statement seriously. Position statements should be prepared by – at a minimum – an experienced human resources professional. Better yet, contact your employment counsel. Position statements not only shape the administrative agencies’ investigations and conclusions, but they are also discoverable in litigation. So, even though employment disputes are not criminal in nature, it is wise to heed the Miranda warning that “anything you say will be used against you” in court. 

Bottom Line: Responsibilities Flow From Receipt of a Charge 

As tempting as it may be to ignore or dismiss an EEOC or NERC charge, resist the temptation and take steps to protect your organization from potential liability. Deadlines are triggered from the charge notification. Failure to preserve all relevant evidence can result in severe sanctions, including ruling against your organization on the ultimate discrimination, harassment, or retaliation issue. Failing to conduct an internal investigation can limit your ability to properly defend against the employee’s claims and to determine your possible liability. In short, no good can come from ignoring a charge. Instead, follow the steps outlined above to put you in the best position to handle the allegations and minimize liability to your organization.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

April 14, 2015

EEOC Fails to Show Telecommuting Would Be A Reasonable Accommodation

Wiletsky_MBy Mark Wiletsky 

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) “does not endow all disabled persons with a job—or job schedule—of their choosing,” according to the majority of judges on the full Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In an 8 to 5 decision, the Sixth Circuit Court ruled en banc that Ford Motor Company did not violate the ADA when it denied an employee’s request to telecommute up to four days per week in order to accommodate her irritable bowel syndrome. EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., No. 12-2484 (6th Cir. Apr. 10, 2015). 

“Good, Old-Fashioned Interpersonal Skills” Made In-Person Attendance Essential 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) argued that a resale buyer for Ford, Jane Harris, who had irritable bowel syndrome that made it difficult for her to be far from a restroom, should be allowed to work from home up to four days per week. The agency cited Ford’s telecommuting policy that allowed other workers, including some resale buyers, to telecommute as evidence that Harris’ telecommuting request was a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. 

The Court disagreed. It ruled that regular and predictable on-site attendance was an essential function of the resale-buyer position at Ford. Resale buyers needed to purchase raw steel from steel suppliers and then resell it to parts manufacturers to make parts used in Ford vehicles. Although some interactions could be done by email and telephone, the Court found that many required “good, old-fashioned interpersonal skills,” and resale buyers needed to be able to meet face to face with suppliers, parts manufacturers and Ford employees during core business hours. 

Importantly, the Court reiterated the general rule is that regular attendance at work is essential to most jobs, especially interactive ones. It pointed to past court opinions as well as to EEOC regulations that support the premise that regular and predictable on-site attendance is an essential job function. The Court even relied on that “sometimes-forgotten guide” – common sense, stating that non-lawyers (as well as judges in other appellate circuits) recognize that regular in-person attendance is an essential function, and a prerequisite to other essential functions, of most jobs. 

Other Buyers Telecommuted on a Predictable, Limited Basis 

But what about the fact that Ford had a telecommuting policy that allowed other employees, including resale buyers like Harris, to work from home? Wouldn’t that make telecommuting a reasonable accommodation for Harris? 

The Court said no, because she proposed to telecommute four days per week on a schedule of her choosing. The other resale buyers who telecommuted did so only one established day per week and they agreed in advance that they would come into work that day, if needed. They were also able to perform well and maintain productivity. Harris, on the other hand, wanted to be able to pick and choose which days she would telecommute, up to four days per week, without agreeing to come in those days, if necessary. The Court found that none of these other employees’ more predictable and more limited telecommuting schedules removed regular on-site attendance from the resale buyer’s job. 

As a result, the Court ruled that Harris’ proposed telecommuting accommodation unreasonable.

In addition, Ford had allowed Harris to telecommute on an as-needed basis on three separate occasions and her performance suffered. Other attempts to improve Harris’ attendance also failed. The Court found that Harris could not perform the essential functions of her job and was unable to establish regular and consistent work hours. Therefore, it ruled that she was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA. 

Technology Did Not Carry the Day 

The EEOC argued that advances in technology make on-site attendance less essential. The Court disagreed in this case, stating that there was no evidence presented that specific technology made personal interactions unnecessary for resale buyers. 

No Blind Deference to Employer’s Judgment 

The Court made a point of stating that its opinion did not open the door for courts to blindly accept as essential whatever an employer says is essential for a particular job. It emphasized that an employer’s words, policies and practices were all important in deciding whether a particular task or requirement is an essential job function. 

In Ford’s case, the evidence supported Ford’s judgment that regular and predictable in-person attendance was essential for resale buyers. The Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Ford. 

No Retaliation For Termination 

The Court also ruled that Ford did not retaliate against Harris when it fired her for poor performance just four months after she had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Key was Ford’s good documentation of Harris’ performance and interpersonal issues. She had been ranked in the bottom 10% of her peer group before she filed her charge. Documentation showed that she failed to update spreadsheets, complete her paperwork, schedule training sessions, price items correctly and finish her work on time. Despite the closeness in time of the firing to her charge filing, the Court ruled that the EEOC failed to present evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the real reason that Ford terminated Harris was unlawful retaliation instead of poor performance. 

Dissent: Either Physical Presence is Not Essential or Telecommuting is A Reasonable Accommodation 

Five judges on the Sixth Circuit dissented, believing that the EEOC had presented enough evidence to send the EEOC’s claims to a jury. Specifically, the dissent stated that the evidence was sufficient to show that there remained genuine disputes over whether Harris was a qualified individual, either because in-person attendance was not an essential function of her job, or because telecommuting would be a reasonable accommodation for her. It pointed to Ford’s telecommuting policy which allowed for “one to four days” of telework each week. It noted that Harris proposed that she be able to work from home up to four days each week, as was arguably allowed under the policy, not that she be permitted to telecommute four days each and every week. 

The dissent also asserted that Harris’ past attendance issues that were a result of her disability should not be used against her in deciding whether a telecommuting arrangement during core business hours would be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Moreover, the dissent found that Ford should have engaged in a more interactive process to clarify Harris’ telecommuting accommodation request. Finally, the dissent believed that there was a genuine dispute over whether Ford retaliated against Harris for filing her discrimination charge. 

Lessons for Employers Facing ADA Telecommuting Accommodation Requests 

The majority’s decision finding that regular and predictable in-person attendance is an essential function of most jobs, especially interactive ones, is favorable for employers. But it does not mean that telecommuting can never be a reasonable accommodation. In fact, the dissent in this case demonstrates that telecommuting requests for disabled employees is likely to continue to be an issue with which employers will grapple in coming years.  

If face-to-face interactions and in-person attendance at meetings or other work-related functions is essential for certain jobs at your workplace, be certain to include those tasks in your job descriptions. If you generally allow telecommuting, be sure to have a written policy and apply it consistently. If presented with a request to telecommute in order to accommodate a disability, engage in an interactive process to discuss whether telecommuting would be appropriate for that particular position and employee, whether it would constitute an undue hardship for your organization and if alternative accommodations would allow the employee to perform his or her essential functions. And by all means, make sure you have concrete documentation of an employee’s poor performance or policy infractions before taking adverse action against anyone who has filed a discrimination charge.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

April 8, 2015

Steps to Prevent Workplace Bullying

Hall_ABy Anthony Hall 

This year, employers in California must include anti-bullying training for company supervisors as part of their required biannual sexual harassment training. Even though other states, such as Nevada, have not yet mandated such training, employers should take notice of potential liability that may arise from workplace bullying and take steps to prevent it. 

Workplace Bullying Statistics 

According to a 2011 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 51% of responding organizations reported incidences of bullying in their workplaces. Twenty-seven percent of employees surveyed by the Workplace Bullying Institute in 2014 reported a current or past direct experience with abusive conduct at work. An earlier study of U.S. workers found that 41.4% of respondents reported experiencing psychological aggression at work in the past year (Schat, Frone & Kelloway, 2006). These numbers are significant, indicating that workplace bullying is alive and well in U.S. companies. 

Effects of Bullying on the Workplace 

Effects of workplace bullying are felt not just by the victims of the bullying but also by the organization itself. Some potential effects on your company may include: 

  • High employee turnover, resulting in increased recruiting, hiring and training costs
  • Low productivity, as workers lose motivation and take more breaks or sick time
  • Drain on HR staff and supervisors having to deal with bullying incidents and lost productivity
  • Bad publicity and damage to reputation as word gets out that bullying takes place at your organization 

The negative effects of bullying result in a significant drain on an organization’s time, resources and finances. But because it hasn’t been explicitly “illegal,” companies have been slow to address it. 

Potential Claims Based on Bullying 

Despite the lack of explicit federal or state laws prohibiting abusive workplace conduct that is not based on a protected characteristic, employers should be aware that other types of claims could be raised as a result of bullying. To the extent that an employee suffers a physical or mental injury or illness as a result of bullying at work, it could result in a workers’ compensation claim. In addition, depending on the nature of the bullying and the position/title of the bully, abusive conduct could support claims such as intentional infliction of emotional distress, intentional interference with employment contract, negligent hiring, retention or supervision, battery or assault. 

Tips to Prevent Workplace Bullying 

Despite the lack of laws prohibiting workplace bullying, it is a sound employment practice to take steps to prevent and address abusive conduct in your organization. Get beyond labeling behavior as legal or illegal, harassment or bullying. If there is unprofessional, potentially harmful behavior occurring at your place of business, you need to ask questions, conduct a thorough and timely investigation and take steps to stop any misconduct. 

To help your organization be proactive in preventing bullying, consider the following steps: 

  • Implement a standalone anti-bullying policy or incorporate the subject of bullying into your anti-harassment policy or code-of-conduct policy;
  • Train all employees on your policy, including your zero tolerance for workplace bullying;
  • Train supervisors and managers on recognizing bullying and what to do if it occurs;
  • Offer employees numerous avenues for reporting bullying and ways to get help, both internally and through an employee assistance program or outreach agency;
  • Be inclusive so that all employees feel comfortable speaking up and participating in company projects and activities; and
  • Treat complaints of bullying behavior seriously and launch a workplace investigation. 

Workplace bullying is an ongoing problem that can affect your reputation and bottom line so don’t wait for legislation or a lawsuit before enacting these proactive measures.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

April 3, 2015

Presidential Veto Quashes Congressional Attempt to Overturn NLRB “Quickie” Election Rules

Husband_J By John Husband and Brad Williams 

On March 31, 2015, President Obama vetoed a joint resolution passed by both houses of Congress that sought to overturn the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB’s) rules designed to speed up the union election process. Scheduled to go into effect on April 14, 2015, these so-called “quickie” or “ambush” election rules significantly shorten the period of time between a petition for a union election and a vote. 

History of “Quickie” Election Rules 

Williams_BThe “quickie” election rules have a tortured history. First proposed in June 2011, the rules faced immediate and severe criticism that led to a watered-down version of the rules being adopted in December 2011. These watered-down rules went briefly into effect in April 2012, but were quickly invalidated by a federal court just two weeks later. The court ruled that the Board had lacked a statutorily mandated quorum when it voted to adopt the rules. 

Notably, the federal court also stated that nothing prevented a properly constituted quorum of the Board from voting to re-adopt the rules in the future. That is exactly what the Board did in February 2014. It re-proposed its original rules, and subsequently adopted the rules in December 2014. The new rules are slated to become effective on April 14th. 

Legal Challenges Continue 

Despite Congress’s ill-fated  attempt to block the rules under the Congressional Review Act, the rules still face potential hurdles. For instance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia in January 2015 seeking to vacate the rules and enjoin their enforcement. Business groups in Texas filed a similar lawsuit in January 2015. These lawsuits allege numerous reasons why the rules should be invalidated, including alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act and Congressional intent, alleged violations of the First Amendment and due process protections, and arbitrary and capricious rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act. However, the lawsuits will take time to wind through the courts, and their chances of success are uncertain. 

Anticipated Effects of Rules 

Barring any unexpected injunction before April 14th, employers should anticipate big changes from the new rules. The rules will shorten the period of time between a petition for a union election and a vote to perhaps fifteen or fewer days (as opposed to the five or more weeks under current practice). The rules are expected to boost organizing activity as unions attempt to increase their membership – and dues-generated revenue – through “ambush” elections. The compressed timeline between a petition and vote will limit employers’ ability to fully explain the pros and cons of union representation before an election, and limit employees’ ability to cast an informed vote. To retain flexibility in dealing directly with their employees, employers should be ready at the first hint of union organizing to educate their employees about the desirability of union representation. Advance preparation, and a properly orchestrated counter-organizational campaign, will be key.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.