Author Archives: Holland & Hart

May 17, 2017

Employer’s Dispute Resolution Program Did Not Prevent Employee Termination

By Steve Gutierrez

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

Account Executive Fired For Poor Performance and Missed Meetings

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

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

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

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

Employee Failed To Utilize Employee Dispute Resolution Program

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

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

Former Employee Sues On Multiple Claims

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

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

Appellate Court Upholds Judgment In Favor of Employer

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

Take Aways For Employers

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

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

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

May 3, 2017

Is Comp Time Coming To The Private Sector?

By Mark Wiletsky

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

Eligibility For Comp Time

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

Employee Agreement For Comp Time

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

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

Limits On And Pay-Out Of Accrued Comp Time

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

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

Employee Use of Comp Time

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

Will It Pass?

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

May 2, 2017

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

By Steve Collis

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

Four Month Legislative Session

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

Colorado Bills That Passed

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

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

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

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

Employment-Related Bills Still Under Consideration

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

Failed Employment-Related Bills 

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

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

Stay Tuned

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

April 19, 2017

Retroactive Leniency Is Not A Reasonable Accommodation

By Brad Cave

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

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

Last Chance Agreement

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

Terminated For Hanging Up On Customers

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

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

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

ADA and FMLA Claims

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

Employer Need Not Excuse Or Overlook Misconduct 

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

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

Decision-Maker’s Honest Belief In Termination Reasons

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

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

FMLA Retaliation Claim Also Fails

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

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

Key Lessons

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

April 6, 2017

Seventh Circuit: Title VII Prohibits Sexual-Orientation Discrimination

By Dustin Berger

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

Title VII Prohibits Discrimination Because of Sex

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

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

Lesbian Professor Claimed Discrimination Based on Her Sexual Orientation

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

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

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

Ultimate Case of Sex Stereotyping

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

Associational Discrimination

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

What This Ruling Means For Employers

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

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

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

April 3, 2017

Supreme Court Confirms That EEOC Subpoena Enforcement Decisions Must Be Reviewed Under Abuse of Discretion Standard

By Mark Wiletsky

When reviewing a district court’s decision on whether to enforce or quash a subpoena issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), appellate courts should determine if the district court abused its discretion, rather than conducting a new review of the subpoena enforcement, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. All eight justices agreed that the proper standard of review of an EEOC subpoena enforcement decision is abuse of discretion, not de novo review. McLane Co., Inc. v. EEOC, 581 U.S. ___ (2017).

EEOC Subpoena Sought “Pedigree Information”

In the case before the Court, the EEOC was investigating a gender discrimination charge filed by a female distribution center employee named Damiana Ochoa. Ochoa had worked for eight years as a cigarette selector which required her to lift, pack, and move large bins of products. After Ochoa took three months of maternity leave, her employer required that she undergo a physical evaluation that tested her range of motion, resistance, and speed. The company required such tests of new employees as well as all those returning from medical leave. Despite attempting to pass the physical evaluation three times, Ochoa failed. The company fired her.

Ochoa filed a discrimination charge alleging, among other things, that she had been terminated on the basis of her gender. As part of its investigation, the EEOC asked the company to provide the agency with information about the physical evaluation test and individuals who had been asked to take the test. The company provided a list of anonymous employees who had been evaluated, providing each individual’s gender, role at the company, reason for the test, and evaluation score. The company refused, however, to provide what it called “pedigree information,” including the individual’s name, social security number, last known address, and telephone number.

When the EEOC learned that the company used its physical evaluation nationwide, the EEOC expanded the scope of its investigation, asking for information not only on gender but on potential age discrimination, and not only for the Arizona division where Ochoa worked but also for all of the company’s grocery divisions nationwide. The EEOC issued subpoenas requesting pedigree information related to its expanded investigation. The company refused to comply, so the EEOC sought to enforce its subpoenas in the Arizona district court.

District Court Quashed EEOC’s Subpoenas, But Ninth Circuit Reversed

The district court determined that the pedigree information was not relevant to the charges, as “an individual’s name, or even an interview he or she could provide if contacted, simply could not shed light on whether the [evaluation] represents a tool of . . . discrimination.” The district court refused to enforce the EEOC’s subpoenas.

The EEOC appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the applicable precedent indicated that the appellate court must review the district court’s decision to quash the subpoenas de novo (i.e., a completely new review). Concluding that the district court was wrong to quash the subpoenas, the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the pedigree information was relevant to the EEOC’s investigation.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to resolve a dispute among the Circuit Courts of Appeal on whether the proper standard of review is de novo, as was applied by the Ninth Circuit, or an abuse of discretion review, which other Circuits applied.

Supreme Court Decides Deferential Appellate Review Applies

The Supreme Court decided that a district court’s decision whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena should be subject to a deferential review, namely whether the district court had abused its discretion, rather than a de novo review. Recognizing that the Title VII provision that grants the EEOC subpoena power is the same as the authority granted to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to issue subpoenas, the Court looked to the standard of review used when considering NLRB subpoena enforcement decisions. The Court found that every circuit that had considered that question had ruled that a district court’s decision whether to enforce an NLRB subpoena should be reviewed for abuse of discretion. In addition, almost every circuit other than the Ninth had applied the same deferential review to a district court’s decision whether to enforce an EEOC subpoena. Consequently, this “long history of appellate practice” carried weight with the justices for adopting an abuse of discretion standard in this case.

In addition, the Court focused on the case-specific nature of each EEOC subpoena enforcement decision. A district court must consider whether the evidence sought by the EEOC is relevant to the specific charge at issue and whether the subpoena is unduly burdensome in light of the circumstances. Believing that the district court is better suited than the courts of appeals to address these kinds of “fact-intensive, close calls,” the Court stated that the abuse of discretion standard of review was appropriate. Read more >>

March 21, 2017

Supreme Court Rules That NLRB Acting GC Became Ineligible To Serve After Nomination To Permanent Role

By Steve Gutierrez

Once a President nominates a candidate for a Senate-confirmed office, that person may not serve in an acting capacity for that office while awaiting Senate confirmation, pursuant to a ruling today by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 6-to-2 decision, the Court ruled that Lafe Solomon, who had been appointed by President Obama to serve as acting general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during a vacancy, could no longer serve in that acting role after the President later nominated him to fill the position outright.

NLRB General Counsel Appointment

The position of general counsel of the NLRB must be filled through an appointment by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate – a so-called “PAS” office. When a vacancy in a PAS office arises, the President is permitted to direct certain officials to serve in the vacant position temporarily in an acting capacity. Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (FVRA), only three classes of government officials may become acting officers. The FVRA,  however, prohibits certain persons from serving in an acting capacity once the President puts that person forward as the nominee to fill the position permanently.

In Lafe Solomon’s case, he was directed by President Obama in June 2010 to serve temporarily as the NLRB’s acting general counsel when the former general counsel resigned. Solomon had worked for ten years as the Director of the NLRB’s Office of Representation Appeals and was within the classes of officials who could be directed to serve in an acting capacity under the FVRA. In January 2011, President Obama nominated Solomon to serve as the NLRB’s general counsel on a permanent basis. Solomon continued to serve as acting general counsel for an additional two-plus years as the Senate failed to act on his nomination. In mid-2013, the President withdrew Solomon’s nomination, putting forward another candidate whom the Senate confirmed in late October 2013.

Company Facing ULP Argued Solomon Couldn’t Be Acting GC After Nomination

In January 2013, while Solomon was acting general counsel, SW General, Inc., a company that provides ambulance services, received a complaint alleging it committed an unfair labor practice (ULP) for failing to pay certain bonuses to employees. After an administrative law judge and the NLRB concluded that SW General had committed the ULP, the company argued in court that the complaint was invalid because Solomon could not legally perform the acting general counsel duties after the President had nominated him for the permanent position. The company pointed to wording in the FVRA restricting the ability of acting officers to serve after being nominated to hold the position permanently. Whether the FVRA prohibits all classes of acting officials or only first assistants who automatically assume acting duties from continuing to serve after nomination was the issue before the Supreme Court.

Once Nominated, Official Is No Longer Eligible To Serve In Acting Capacity

The Court ruled that once a person has been nominated for a vacant PAS office, he or she may not perform the duties of that office in an acting capacity. The Court rejected the NLRB’s position that the FVRA restricted only first assistants who were in an acting capacity, rather than restricting all classes of officials directed to serve in an acting capacity who are later nominated for the permanent position. In applying its ruling to Lafe Solomon, the Court ruled that Solomon’s continued service as the NLRB acting general counsel after he had been nominated to fill that position permanently violated the FVRA. NLRB v. SW General, Inc., ___ 580 U.S. ___ (2017).

Solomon’s Actions “Voidable”

So what does this mean for all of Solomon’s actions taken during the over two-year period in which Solomon improperly served as the acting general counsel after his nomination for the permanent position? For example, what happens to the ULP complaints filed by, or at Solomon’s direction, during that period?

The Court noted in a footnote that the FVRA exempts the general counsel of the NLRB from the general rule that actions taken in violation of the FVRA are void ab initio (i.e. from the beginning). The Court of Appeals had ruled that Solomon’s actions during that period were “voidable.” Because the NLRB did not appeal that part of the lower appellate court’s ruling, it was not before the Supreme Court to decide. Consequently, the Court of Appeals’ decision that Solomon’s actions are voidable stands. Accordingly, each action taken by Solomon during the time that he improperly served as acting general counsel would need to be challenged on an individual basis.

March 7, 2017

Utah Payment of Wages Act Amendments Passed

By Bryan Benard

On March 7, 2017, the Utah Legislature passed a bill amending certain provisions of the Utah Payment of Wages Act (“UPWA”). H.B. 238 was sponsored by Representative Tim Hawkes and if signed into law by the Governor, will make three primary changes to the law.

Individual Liability For Payment of Wages 

First, the bill changes the definition of “employer” from a unique Utah definition to the definition of employer as used in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The change will allow case interpretation of the FLSA definition of employer to apply to Utah employers under the UPWA. The reason behind this change is to clarify that in certain situations, individual directors and officers of companies may be held individually liable for the non-payment of wages. In a 2015 case, the Utah Supreme Court had ruled that there was no individual liability under the UPWA (Heaps v. Nuriche, 2015 UT 26), causing the Utah legislature to take action this session to effectively overrule that decision, replacing it with the individual liability standards applicable under the FLSA.

Private Cause of Action 

Second, this new law expressly creates a private cause of action for wages under the UPWA. This change also was prompted by a court ruling, namely Self v. TPUSA, Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10822, D.Utah Jan. 16, 2009, in which the federal court in Utah suggested that there was no private right of action under the UPWA. After the effective date of the new amendments, a private citizen clearly has the right to file a lawsuit to recover payment of wages under the UPWA in Utah state court. The amendments also provide that Utah state courts may award actual damages (i.e., the unpaid wages), a potential penalty for the violation, and an amount equal to 2.5% of the unpaid wages owed for up to 20 days.

Administrative Process Mandatory For Smaller Wage Claims 

Finally, the new law requires that certain wage claims alleging a violation of the UPWA be filed first with the Utah Labor Commission. Currently, employees “may” file a wage claim at the Commission. After enactment, all wage claims that are less than $10,000 must first be filed with the Labor Commission and the party must exhaust the administrative remedies there on such claims. Claims that are greater than $10,000, employees with multiple claims (that aggregate above $10,000), or multiple employees in the same civil action whose claims together are greater than $10,000, may file such claims directly in court without exhausting the administrative remedies.

Next Steps 

Utah employers should certainly take note of these changes, and specifically the potential for individual liability of directors and officers for the payment of wages. It is also worth watching to see if the new express private right of action increases the amounts of wage claims brought in Utah.

March 7, 2017

New Immigration Executive Order Scales Back Earlier Travel Restrictions

By Roger Tsai

On Monday, March 6th, President Trump signed a new, narrower Executive Order (EO) that temporarily restricts travel to the United States by citizens of six Muslim-majority countries. The new EO revokes the administration’s earlier order that was issued on January 27, 2017. Here are the highlights of the new EO and how it may affect employers in the U.S.

Ninety-day Travel Restrictions

The new EO restricts entry into the U.S. of nationals from six countries for 90 days from the effective date of the order, which is March 16, 2017. The six restricted countries are Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia. During the 90-day suspension period, the Secretary of Homeland Security is directed to conduct a worldwide review to identify additional information that is needed from each foreign country to determine whether individuals who apply for a visa, admission, or other immigration adjudication, are a security or public-safety threat. 

Iraq No Longer Subject To Travel Restrictions

As we reported earlier, the administration’s January executive order sought to temporarily restrict travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, and only Iraq has been removed from the list due to the “close cooperative relationship between the United States and the democratically elected Iraqi government, the strong United States diplomatic presence in Iraq, the significant presence of United States forces in Iraq, and Iraq’s commitment to combat ISIS.” The EO further notes that since the January EO was issued, the Iraqi government has taken steps to increase information sharing, travel documentation, and the return of Iraqi nationals who are subject to final orders of removal. Consequently, the temporary travel restrictions will not apply to Iraqi citizens.

Exceptions for Valid Visa Holders and Lawful Permanent Residents

Unlike the confusion caused by the January executive order, the new EO specifies that it does not apply to lawful permanent residents of the U.S. (green card holders) or to foreign nationals of the designated countries who hold a valid visa. The new EO does apply to individuals from the six designated countries who are outside the U.S. and do not have a valid visa on March 16, 2017. In addition, exceptions to the restriction exist for:

  • any foreign national admitted to or paroled into the U.S. on or after the effective date of the order,
  • any foreign national who has a document other than a visa, valid on the effective date of the order or issued any date thereafter, that permits travel to the U.S.,
  • any dual national of one of the designated countries when traveling on a passport issued by a non-designated country, and,
  • any foreign national who has been granted asylum, any refugee who has already been admitted to the U.S., or any individual who has been granted withholding of removal, advance parole, or protection under the Convention Against Torture.

Additional waivers of the suspension of entry from the designated countries may be decided on a case-by-case basis, including when the individual has previously been admitted to the U.S. for a continuous period of work, study, or other long-term activity and seeks to reenter the U.S. to resume that activity. Exceptional waivers may also be granted for spouses, children, or parents of a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or lawful nonimmigrant where a denial of entry causes undue hardship.

Visa Interview Waiver Program Immediately Suspended

The new EO suspends immediately the Visa Interview Waiver Program, which allows travelers to renew travel authorizations without an in-person interview. Now, all individuals seeking a nonimmigrant visa will have to partake in an in-person interview, unless traveling for certain diplomatic or other excepted purposes. 

Refugee Program On Hold For 120 Days

The new EO suspends decision on applications for refugee status for 120 days after the effective date of the order. Unlike the January order, this EO does not single out refugees from Syria as indefinitely suspended. The EO caps the entry of refugees in fiscal year 2017 at 50,000.

March 16, 2017 Effective Date

The new EO becomes effective at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, March 16, 2017. This advance effective date allows all agencies, airports, airlines, employers, individuals, and others affected by the order to plan for its restrictions.

What Employers Need To Consider

The suspension of the Visa Interview Waiver Program could result in delays for some foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. who now must undergo an in-person interview. Employers who employ individuals in the U.S. with unexpired visas from the designated countries should not be impacted because the suspension only affects workers currently outside the U.S. without a valid visa on the March 16, 2017 effective date. Employers seeking to employ or otherwise work with foreign nationals without existing visas from the six designated countries may need to seek a waiver under the case-by-case review process. We will continue to monitor this order, including any legal challenges that may be filed.

March 2, 2017

Remove That Liability Waiver From Your FCRA Disclosure Form

By Mark Wiletsky

If you use an outside company to run background checks on your applicants or employees, you need to review your disclosure forms asap to make sure the forms don’t violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

In a case of first impression by a federal court of appeals, the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that a prospective employer willfully violated the FCRA by including a liability waiver in its FCRA-mandated disclosure form it provided to job applicants. Syed v. M-I, LLC, 846 F.3d 1034 (9th Cir. 2017). In fact, any extraneous writing on the disclosure form can lead to significant liability for a willful FCRA violation. And if you think you are safe by using forms provided by your background check company, think again.

FCRA Refresher

Background checks that inquire into a person’s criminal history, driving record, employment history, professional licensing, credit history, or other similar records, can either be done in-house or by an outside third party. In other words, your HR department may make calls, check online resources, or contact law enforcement or the DMV to obtain this information directly, or your company may outsource this function to a background check company that can do the leg work for you. If you use a background check company or another third party to compile this information on your behalf, the information provided to you is considered a consumer report and is subject to the FCRA.

Because of the private nature of this information, the FCRA limits the reasons for which consumer reports may be obtained. Using consumer reports for employment purposes is a permissible purpose under the FCRA, but such use comes with numerous obligations. In 1996, concerned that prospective employers were obtaining and using consumer reports in a way that violated applicant’s privacy rights, Congress amended the FCRA to impose a disclosure and authorization provision. Pursuant to that provision, a prospective employer is required to disclose that it may obtain the applicant’s consumer report for employment purposes and it must obtain the individual’s consent prior to obtaining the report.

FCRA Disclosure Must Consist “Solely” of Disclosure

Specifically, the FCRA provision states that a person may not procure a consumer report for employment purposes with respect to any consumer unless “(i) a clear and conspicuous disclosure has been made in writing to the consumer at any time before the report is procured or caused to be procured, in a document that consists solely of the disclosure, that a consumer report may be obtained for employment purposes; and (ii) the consumer has authorized in writing (which authorization may be made on the document referred to in clause (i)) the procurement of the report by that person.”

It is clear that the required disclosure should be its own standalone document and should not be included within a job application or other onboarding documents. It is also clear that the authorization (consent form) may be included on the disclosure document. But what about other information? May the disclosure form include a statement that the applicant releases the employer (and/or the background check company) from any liability and waives all claims that may arise out of use of the disclosure and obtaining the background check report?

Court Nixes Liability Waiver As Willful FCRA Violation

What may or may not appear in an FCRA disclosure form has been a hot topic in recent years. Numerous class actions have been filed by job applicants (and their aggressive attorneys) alleging that any extraneous language in a disclosure form violates the requirement that the document consist “solely” of the disclosure. Although numerous lower federal courts have grappled with the meaning of that provision, the Ninth Circuit became the first federal appellate court to examine it. (The Ninth Circuit’s rulings apply to Montana, California, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii.)

In Syed’s case, the prospective employer provided applicants with a document labeled “Pre-employment Disclosure Release” that appears to have been obtained from its background check company, PreCheck, Inc. The third paragraph on the single-page document included the following statement:

“I hereby discharge, release and indemnify prospective employer, PreCheck, Inc., their agents, servants and employees, and all parties that rely on this release and/or the information obtained with this release from any and all liability and claims arising by reason of the use of this release and dissemination of information that is false and untrue if obtained from a third party without verification.”

On behalf of a class of over 65,000 job applicants, Syed alleged that by including this liability waiver, his prospective employer and the background check company violated the statutory requirement that the document consist “solely” of the disclosure. The Ninth Circuit agreed.

The Court found that the text of the FCRA provision was unambiguous and that even though the law permits the authorization to be included on the disclosure document, that was an express exception authorized by Congress. The Court further explained the difference between an authorization and a waiver by stating that the authorization requirement granted authority or power to the individual consumer whereas the waiver requires the individual to give up or relinquish a right. Therefore, the Court rejected the employer’s argument that the FCRA permits the inclusion of a liability waiver in the disclosure.

Moreover, the Court deemed this FCRA violation to be willful. Stating that “this is not a ‘borderline case,’” the Court ruled that the employer acted in reckless disregard of its statutory duty under the unambiguous disclosure requirement. As a willful FCRA violation, the employer faces statutory damages of between $100 and $1,000 per violation (remember, there were over 65,000 class members), plus punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and costs. Read more >>