Category Archives: Current Affairs

October 20, 2015

Colorado Vacation Policies: Use-It-Or-Lose-It Policy Hinges On When Vacation Is “Earned”

In recent weeks, the Colorado Division of Labor indicated that it was taking a new position when enforcing wage claims based on an employer’s vacation policy. The specific issue has revolved around whether a use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy—i.e., a policy where an employee cannot roll-over some or all earned vacation from year to year—is lawful in Colorado. 

In response to inquiries about its position on such policies, the Division recently posted FAQs on its website stating that a use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy does not necessarily run afoul of the Colorado Wage Protection Act. But if an employee challenges the validity of the policy, the determining factor will focus on when the vacation pay is earned. 

Division of Labor Leaves Many Questions Unanswered

 According to Colorado’s Wage Protection Act, vacation pay “earned in accordance with the terms of any agreement” are “wages.” As a result, many Colorado employers have in place use-it-or-lose-it vacation policies, in which an employee may accrue a certain amount of vacation or paid time off (PTO) each year, but some or all of that vacation time will not roll-over into the following calendar year. The reason for such policies is simple: it avoids employees banking large sums of vacation or PTO, which is typically paid out upon separation from employment. Until recently, the Division had not taken a formal position on such policies. 

However, given the recent changes to the Wage Protection Act, the Division is responsible for adjudicating wage claims, albeit the jurisdiction is limited to claims for $7,500 or less. In light of that change, and as many people likely saw, the Division issued guidance informally in recent weeks concerning use-it-or-lose-it vacation policies. After numerous legal alerts were sent out, the Division took a step back, as reflected in a Denver Post article.  

Earlier this week, in an effort to clear up the confusion, the Division issued two FAQ’s, as noted above. Those FAQs specifically address whether Colorado employers may have use-it-or-lose-it provisions in their vacation policies. The Division answered that question yes, as long as any such policy is included in the terms of an agreement between the employer and employee. That clarification seems helpful, as it states that use-it-or-lose-it vacation policies are permissible under the Wage Protection Act. 

The first FAQ, however, goes on to state that a use-it-or-lose-it policy may not deprive an employee of earned vacation time and/or the wages associated with that time. It also states that any vacation pay that is “earned and determinable” must be paid upon separation of employment. The terms of an agreement between the employer and employee will determine when vacation pay is earned. 

This part of the FAQ is less helpful. It raises many questions about how an employer may structure a use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy in a way that will not deprive employees of any earned vacation. The Division’s position appears to be that once vacation is “earned,” it cannot be lost. 

The second FAQ addresses what factors the Division will use to determine whether a specific use-it-or-lose-it policy is permissible. The Division first will look to whether the policy states when vacation pay is earned. If the policy does not state or is ambiguous as to when vacation pay is earned, the Division will consider the following factors in determining whether the use-it-or-lose-it policy is permissible: 

  • The employer’s historical practices
  • Industry norms and standards
  • The subjective understandings of the employer and employee
  • Any other factual considerations which may shed light on when vacation time becomes “earned” under the agreement in question. 

Take Aways For Use-It-Or-Lose-It Vacation Policies 

Because of the many unanswered questions related to the validity of use-it-or-lose-it vacation policies, Colorado employers should exercise caution. Points to consider include: 

  • The Division’s jurisdiction is limited to claims of $7,500 or less
  • The Division’s interpretation of the Wage Protection Act and vacation policies may or may not be accepted by courts, and
  • To avoid any potential challenge, consider a maximum accrual policy instead of a use-it-or-lose-it policy (e.g., once an employee hits a certain accrual, the employee will not earn more vacation or PTO until the employee falls below the maximum) 

The best practice if you want to maintain a use-it-or-lose-it vacation or PTO policy is to review your policy with experienced employment counsel to determine if/how to revise your policies in light of the new guidance from the Division.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

June 30, 2015

New Overtime Rules: $970 Per Week Salary Proposed For White Collar Exemptions in 2016

Huntington_CBy R. Calder Huntington 

The minimum weekly salary for exempt employees will be raised from the current $455 to a likely $970 in 2016, if the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) overtime pay revisions go into effect as proposed. In its long-awaited proposed revisions to overtime rules, the DOL estimates that 4.6 million U.S. workers who are currently exempt will be entitled to minimum wage and overtime compensation under the new salary level requirements. 

Salary Level Would Automatically Adjust on an Annual Basis 

Under its proposed rules, the DOL sets the salary threshold for the white collar exemptions at the 40th percentile of weekly earnings for full-time salaried workers nationwide. For 2013, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that figure was $921 per week, or $47,892 per year. The DOL anticipates that when its Final Rule goes into effect in 2016, the salary level will be $970 per week, or $50,440 per year. 

In order to maintain the salary levels at a fixed percentile of earnings, the DOL proposes that the salary threshold automatically update annually. The automatic adjustment is intended to prevent the salary level from diminishing through inflation and to potentially make additional rulemaking adjusting the salary basis unnecessary. The DOL believes that this will provide more certainty to employers with a meaningful, bright-line test while improving government efficiency. 

Highly Compensated Employee Exemption: $122,148 Salary 

The current exemption for highly compensated employees requires an annual salary of $100,000. The DOL proposes to raise that salary threshold also based on an annualized value of a percentile of weekly earnings for full-time salaried workers. This proposal sets the salary level of highly-compensated employees at the 90th percentile, which was $122,148 per year for 2013. That number will likely be higher by the time the Final Rule is implemented. This salary requirement would also adjust automatically to the level equal to the 90th percentile of earnings for full-time salaried workers. 

No Proposed Changes to Duties Requirements 

Since 2004, the duties tests for the white collar exemptions have not included a limit on the amount of time that an employee can spend on nonexempt duties before the exemption is lost. Believing that a rise in the salary level will provide an initial bright-line test for the exemptions, the DOL refrained from proposing changes to the duties tests but will consider requests for changes during the comment period. 

In its proposal, the DOL noted that employer stakeholders opposed any changes to the duties requirements as percentage limits on the amount of time spent on nonexempt duties are sometimes difficult to apply and hinder flexibility for work duties. Employee groups, on the other hand, expressed concern that certain businesses treat workers as exempt even though the employees perform mostly nonexempt duties, especially (they claim) in the retail industry. Without proposing its own duties requirements, the DOL seeks input from interested parties on whether changes to the duties tests are necessary in light of the salary level increases proposed. 

Nondiscretionary Bonuses May Be Included in Salary Level Requirement 

In the past, the DOL has not included nondiscretionary bonus payments when determining whether an employee’s salary meets the white collar exemption threshold; it looked only at actual salary or fee payments made to employees. In its proposed rules, the DOL seeks input on whether it should permit some amount of nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments to count toward a portion of the salary level requirement for the executive, administrative and professional exemptions. The DOL states that for these bonuses or incentive payments to count toward the weekly salary requirement, the bonuses and incentive payments would need to be paid monthly or more frequently, not as a yearly “catch-up” payment. 

Next Steps 

If you want to submit any comments on the DOL’s proposed changes to the overtime rules, you have 60 days in which to submit your input either electronically or by mail. Instructions are at the beginning of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

After considering comments from interested parties, the DOL will decide whether to make any revisions to its proposed overtime rules and will issue its Final Rule sometime thereafter. Although the final version of the rules may change slightly, you should begin preparing for the changes now. 

Examine your payroll records to determine which employees are currently treated as exempt under the various white collar exemptions. Determine which, if any, would or would not meet the new salary thresholds: $50,440 per year for executive, administrative and professional exemptions and $122,148 for highly compensated employees. Review the duties tests to make sure your exempt employees are performing exempt tasks. 

After this review, consider how your organization is going to handle those employees who may not qualify as exempt under the new rules. Do you want to increase their salary to meet the new threshold? Change their status to nonexempt and pay them minimum wage and overtime? Do you need to change their duties to make sure they meet the duties tests? Have these internal conversations now so that you are not caught off guard when the Final Rule goes into effect in the coming months.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

June 26, 2015

Same-Sex Marriage Equality: What Employers Need to Know After Obergefell

Wisor_SBy Sarah Wisor 

Same-sex couples have a Constitutional right to marry and have their marriages recognized nationwide. In a 5-to-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that states are required to license a marriage between two people of the same sex under the Fourteenth Amendment. Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015). As a result, same-sex couples may now legally marry in all states. This ruling has massive implications, as rights and benefits extended to opposite-sex spouses will be available to same-sex spouses across the United States. 

Marriage Equality Prevails 

In an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court recognized that same-sex couples were not seeking to devalue the institution of marriage, but instead sought for themselves the respect, rights, and responsibilities that accompany a legal marriage. The Court held that under both the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry. 

The Due Process Clause provides that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Court determined that same-sex couples may exercise the right to marry under this Clause for four reasons: 

  1. the right to make the personal choice of who to marry is inherent in the right of individual autonomy; choices concerning family relationships, whether to have children, and whether to use contraception are protected intimate decisions that extend to all persons, regardless of sexual orientation;
  2. the right of couples to commit themselves to each other and enjoy intimate association extends to same-sex couples just as it does to opposite-sex couples;
  3. protecting same-sex marriage safeguards children and families because without the recognition and stability of marriage, children of same-sex couples suffer harm and humiliation as well as material costs because of the stigma attached to “knowing their families are somehow lesser” than families of opposite-sex couples; and
  4. marriage is a “keystone” of our country’s social order and national community; governmental recognition, rights, benefits and responsibilities depend in many ways on marital status and same-sex couples should not be denied the benefits that accompany marriage.

The Court also ruled that the right of same-sex couples to marry is a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The Court admonished that state laws that ban same-sex marriage deny same-sex couples the benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples, disparage same-sex couples’ choices, and diminish their personhood. The Equal Protection Clause prohibits such “unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.” 

Recognition of Marriages Performed in Other States 

The Court also ruled that a state may not refuse to recognize the same-sex marriages lawfully performed in another state. The result is that any lawful marriage that has already taken place in the United States, whether same- or opposite-sex, must be recognized in all 50 states. 

What This Means for Employers 

Multi-state employers that have been dealing with state-specific policies that were dependent on state-law recognition of same-sex marriages may now want to implement a uniform policy that applies to all locations. Here are steps you should consider in light of the legalization of same-sex marriages nationwide: 

  • FMLA leave: Same-sex spouses will be deemed spouses under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) no matter where the marriage took place or where the employee resides. This means that you need to permit eligible employees to take FMLA leave to care for their same-sex spouse with a serious health condition, for qualifying exigency leave if the spouse is being deployed and other qualifying reasons. Update your FMLA policies, forms and practices to permit this leave.
  • Bereavement and other leaves: If you offer bereavement leave for the death of a spouse or in-laws, you should update your policy to reflect that this leave includes same-sex spouses and relatives of the same-sex spouse. If you offer any other leaves that define immediate family or extend to familial situations, such as non-FMLA medical leave or military leave, update those definitions as well.
  • Marital status discrimination: If you operate in states that prohibit discrimination based on an employee’s or applicant’s marital status, you will be prohibited from discriminating based on same-sex marriages.
  • Emergency contacts and beneficiaries: Employees with a same-sex spouse may want to update their emergency contact or beneficiary information listed on group life insurance or retirement plans. Be prepared to administer these changes.
  • Employee benefits: Group insurance, retirement and other employee benefit plans will need to be reviewed and updated. Be certain to consult your benefits attorney and plan administrators for advice on required changes.
  • W-4 Forms and tax updates: In light of potential income tax implications for newly recognized same-sex spouses, some employees may want to change their tax withholding information. Be prepared to update W-4 and state withholding amounts upon request. 

These and additional policies and procedures impacted by the Court’s ruling may require that you update your employee handbook, policies on your intranet, plan documents, forms, beneficiary designations and other personnel documents. Be sure to notify and train your human resources professionals and supervisors on all changes. 

The Court’s landmark decision grants “equal dignity in the eyes of the law” to same-sex couples. Take this opportunity to review your employment policies and practices so your company does the same.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

June 25, 2015

Affordable Care Act Survives Challenge: Tax Credits Available For Federal Exchanges

Busacker_B By Bret Busacker and Gabe Hamilton

To avoid an economic “death spiral” of insurance markets, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tax credits are available to individuals in states that have a federal exchange under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. ___ (2015). In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court relied on context and policy to resolve an ambiguity in the statute, supporting the ACA’s tax credit in states where the health care exchange is established by the federal government. 

An Exchange Established by the State-or the Federal Government Hamilton_G

The question before the Court was whether the ACA’s tax credits are available to individuals in states that have a health exchange established by the federal government, or only to those in states where the exchange was established by the state. The ACA provides that individuals are only eligible for premium tax credits under the ACA if the individual obtains insurance through “an Exchange established by the State.” But the Act also provides that if a state fails to set up its own exchange, the federal government will establish “such Exchange.” 

The Internal Revenue Service issued a regulation making ACA premium tax credits available regardless of whether the exchange was established and operated by the state or the federal government. The parties challenging that IRS regulation in this case argued that tax credits should not be available in states with a federal exchange as that was not an exchange “established by the State.” 

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, acknowledged that the challengers’ “plain-meaning” arguments were strong, but concluded that the context and structure of the statutory phrase meant that Congress intended the tax credits to apply to eligible individuals purchasing insurance on any exchange created under the ACA. He wrote that the statute is ambiguous and that plain meaning of a statute is but one means the Court uses to resolve an ambiguity. In this instance, context and structure of the statute were more persuasive. 

Roberts noted that Congress passed the ACA to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. He cited studies that suggested that if tax credits did not apply to federal exchanges, premiums would increase between 35-47 percent and enrollment would decrease by about 70 percent. He wrote, “It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner.” 

Tax Credits Are One of The ACA’s Key Reforms

The Court defined the tax credit scheme as one of the ACA’s three key health insurance reforms. The first key reform is the “guaranteed issue” requirement, which prevents insurance companies from denying health care insurance based on a person’s health, and a “community rating” requirement, which prohibits insurers from charging higher premiums to those in bad health. 

The second key reform is the individual insurance mandate, requiring individuals to have health insurance coverage or pay a tax penalty. This reform is designed to get more healthy people into the insurance pool, lowering premiums across the board. Individuals are exempt from this requirement if the cost of buying insurance would exceed eight percent of their income. 

The third key reform is providing tax credits to certain individuals in order to make insurance more affordable. People with household incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible to purchase health insurance on the exchange with tax credits which are provided directly to the insurance provider. The availability of premium tax credits through state and federal exchanges is seen as essential in getting more individuals insured and spreading the risk pool. 

Acknowledging that the ACA included many instances of “inartful drafting,” the Court decided that limiting tax credits to state exchanges would gut the second and third key reforms in states with a federal exchange. The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement would result in insurance markets plunging into a “death spiral.” The Court concluded that Congress meant for all of the key reforms to apply in every state, including those with federal exchanges. 

 Result: No Change for Employers in ACA Requirements 

By upholding the tax credit scheme in all states regardless of whether an exchange was set up by the state or the federal government, the Supreme Court supported the overall scheme of the ACA. Although Justice Scalia wrote a scathing dissent that was joined by two other justices, the ACA remains intact. Employers should continue to comply with all applicable ACA requirements.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

June 15, 2015

Employee Termination For Off-Duty Marijuana Use Legal, Says Colorado Supreme Court

By Emily Hobbs-Wright

In a nationally awaited decision, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld an employer’s termination of an employee who tested positive for marijuana due to his off-duty, off-premises marijuana use. Issued on June 15, 2015, the Court’s narrow decision in Coats v. Dish Network, LLC turned on the fact that marijuana use remains illegal under federal law. Construing the term “lawful” to encompass activities that are permitted by both state and federal law, the Court ruled that Coats’s off-duty marijuana use was not a protected activity within the meaning of Colorado’s lawful activities statute because marijuana use remains unlawful under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The Court refrained, however, from addressing the issue of whether the state’s Medical Marijuana Amendment confers a state Constitutional right to such use.

Although binding only on Colorado, this decision provides employers nationwide guidance in enforcing drug-free workplace policies as more and more states legalize some form of marijuana use.

Coats v. Dish Network: Employee Not Impaired By Marijuana At Work

Dish Network, LLC terminated Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic, for violating its zero tolerance drug policy after he tested positive for marijuana in a random workplace drug screen. Coats claimed he only used marijuana after work at home to treat painful muscle spasms caused by his quadriplegia. He stated that he did not use marijuana on Dish’s premises and was never under the drug’s influence at work. 

After his termination, Coats sued Dish claiming his termination violated Colorado’s lawful activities statute, which broadly prohibits discharging employees for engaging in “any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-34-402.5(1). Coats argued that because his use of marijuana was legal under state law, he engaged in a lawful off-duty activity for which he could not be discharged. He further argued that the phrase “lawful activity” in Colorado’s statute must be defined in reference to state, not federal law.  

Dish countered by focusing on the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and therefore, its use could not be a “lawful activity” under the Colorado statute, making Coats’s termination legal. The trial court agreed with Dish and dismissed the lawsuit finding that marijuana use is not lawful under state law. A divided Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision on separate grounds (i.e., that in order for an activity to be “lawful” it cannot contravene state or federal law), which the Colorado Supreme Court has now affirmed. 

“Lawful” Means Permitted By Both State and Federal Law

The Colorado lawful activities statute does not define the term “lawful.” Coats argued it should be read as limited to activities that are lawful under state law, which could include legalized marijuana use. The Court disagreed. It looked to the plain language of the statute to conclude that the term “lawful” means permitted by law, or not contrary to, or forbidden by law. The Court refused to impose a state law limitation to the term, ruling that because marijuana use is unlawful under federal law, it is not a “lawful” activity under the Colorado statute.

A successful appeal of the Court’s interpretation of the lawful activities statute to the U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely as the Colorado Supreme Court based its decision on a straightforward common sense construction of a state statute, which is deemed to be within the state’s highest court’s jurisdiction to decide.

Coats’s Impact on Marijuana in the Workplace

The Coats decision is significant to Colorado employers because it confirms that employers are entitled to enforce drug-free workplace policies without fear of violating the state lawful activities statute. Although this case dealt with marijuana use for medical purposes, the Court’s reasoning should apply to recreational marijuana use as well.

Notably, the Court did not decide whether off-duty marijuana use is protected under Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Amendment, which arguably only creates an exemption from criminal prosecution. Any such narrow ruling would almost certainly have spawned additional litigation over the different wording in Colorado’s more recent Recreational Marijuana Amendment, and whether that amendment made off-duty marijuana use “lawful.”

While the Coats decision resolves an important open issue under Colorado law, Colorado employers should continue to exercise caution when dealing with employee marijuana use outside the workplace. Drug testing policies should provide employees with clear notice of consequences for off-duty marijuana use. Further, employers must enforce zero tolerance policies consistently in order to avoid discrimination claims brought under statutes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. When dealing with an employee who uses marijuana off-duty and off-premises, employers should carefully evaluate the facts of each situation and consider the risks of violating other employment laws before making adverse employment decisions.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

May 6, 2015

Colorado Legislators Fail to Pass New Employment Laws in 2015

Hobbs-Wright_EBy Emily Hobbs-Wright 

The 2015 Colorado legislative session is ready to adjourn and few substantive bills related to labor and employment were passed by both chambers this session. Numerous bills on topics such as minimum wage, overtime and discrimination were introduced but with Republicans controlling the Colorado Senate and Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, it’s no surprise that little was enacted. Here's a look at employment-related bills that were considered this session.  

  • Raise Colorado’s Minimum Wage – Concurrent resolutions in both the House and Senate sought to put Colorado’s minimum wage on the November 2016 ballot to allow voters to decide whether to amend the Colorado Constitution to increase the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour on January 1, 2017 with annual increases of $1.00 per hour until 2020, which would see a $12.50 minimum wage. In years thereafter, the minimum wage would be increased annually for inflation (which is the current adjustment provided in Colorado’s Constitution). Both bills failed. (HCR15-1001 and SCR15-003)

 

  • Overtime Fairness Act – This bill would have set a minimum salary requirement for administrative, executive, supervisor and professional exemptions at 120 times the state minimum hourly wage rate. At the current $8.23 minimum wage, the salary threshold would be $987.60 per week. This bill failed to pass. (HB15-1331)

 

  • Repeal of the Job Protection and Civil Rights Enforcement Act of 2013 – The 2013 law that established compensatory and punitive damage remedies for unfair employment practices under Colorado law was under attack in two bills. The Senate passed a bill that would have repealed all components of the 2013 law except for the expansion of age-based discrimination to individuals age 70 or older. (SB15-069) The House killed that bill. A separate bill introduced in the House sought to eliminate the punitive damage provision of the 2013 law. (HB15-1172) That bill never got out of the House.

 

  • Expand and Extend Parental Involvement in K-12 Education Act – The current Colorado law that entitles parents to take time off of work to attend their child’s academic activities is set to expire on September 1, 2015. This bill sought to extend the law indefinitely and to expand the types of academic activities for which parents could take this leave. The bill passed in the House but never got out of the Senate committee to which it was assigned. (HB15-1221)

 

  • Limit on Audits Performed by the Department of Labor and Employment – This bill sought to amend Colorado’s employment verification law by limiting audits by the Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE). Under this provision, the CDLE would be permitted to investigate only an employer’s compliance with the employment verification and examination requirements. This bill never got out of the House committee to which it was assigned. (HB15-1176)

 

  • Right of Private-Sector Employees to Inspect Their Personnel Files – This proposal would have created a right for employees and former employees to inspect or request copies of their personnel file within 30 days of a written request. This bill failed to pass the House. (HB15-1342)

 

  • Independent Contractor Determinations – Two bills sought to change the determination of independent contractor status under Colorado’s unemployment insurance law. The first sought to eliminate the requirement that the individual’s freedom from control and direction of the company must be shown “to the satisfaction of the division.” (SB15-107) This bill never got out of committee. The second bill before the Senate sought to create a bright-line test for whether an individual is an employee or an independent contractor. That bill proposed to establish a numerical standard so that an independent contractor relationship would be recognized if at least six of eleven factors listed in the proposed provision were found to exist. This bill, SB15-269, was introduced rather late in the session and at the time of writing (and with just one week before the session adjourns), was still in committee.

 

Additional bills were introduced that would have affected some Colorado employers, including a bill to require that youth sports organizations conduct criminal history checks on persons who work with children and a bill that would create an income tax credit for employers who assist employees in repaying their student loans for degrees in certain fields, such as science, technology and math. These bill also failed to make it to the Governor’s desk.

Wrap-Up: A Quiet Session for Colorado Employers 

Colorado's legislative session adjourns for the year today, May 6th, and it concludes without Colorado employers having to learn new employment-related laws. Accordingly, on the state level, most of our labor laws are remaining status quo for another year. However, with so many recent changes related to federal employment laws, most Colorado employers will consider the lack of any new state employee protections good news.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

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.

March 9, 2015

DOL May Issue Interpretations of FLSA Exemptions Without Notice-and-Comment Process

Mark Wiletsky of Holland & Hart

By Mark Wiletsky 

Today the Supreme Court sided with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), holding that a federal agency’s interpretive rules are exempt from notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass’n, 575 U.S. ___ (2015). The Court’s decision means that the DOL (and other federal agencies) may issue initial and amended interpretive rules without advance notice and without considering input from interested parties. 

DOL “Flip-Flopped” on Interpretive FLSA Rule 

In this case, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) challenged the DOL’s most recent interpretation on whether loan officers fell within the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) administrative exemption following a series of “flip-flops” in the DOL’s interpretation. In 1999 and 2001, the DOL issued opinion letters stating that mortgage-loan officers do not qualify for the administrative exemption to overtime pay requirements. After new regulations regarding the exemption were issued in 2004, the MBA requested a new interpretation under the revised regulations. In 2006, the DOL issued an opinion letter in which it changed its position, deciding that mortgage-loan officers do qualify for the administrative exemption. In 2010, however, the DOL changed its interpretation again when it withdrew the 2006 opinion letter and issued an Administrator’s Interpretation without notice or comment stating that loan officers once again do not fall within the administrative exemption. 

The MBA sued the DOL, claiming that the DOL needed to use the notice-and-comment process established by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when it planned to issue a new interpretation of a regulation that differs significantly from its prior interpretation. 

Distinction Between Legislative Rules and Interpretive Rules 

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the text of the APA specifically excludes interpretive rules from the notice-and-comment process, so the DOL was free to change its interpretation on loan officers qualifying for the administrative exemption without providing advance notice or seeking public comment first. The Court pointed to the difference between “legislative rules” that have the force and effect of law, which must go through the notice-and-comment period, and “interpretive rules” that do not have the force and effect of law and, therefore, are not subject to the notice-and-comment obligation. 

Finding that the clear text of the APA exempted interpretive rules from the notice-and-comment process, the Court overruled prior precedent in a line of cases that has come to be known as the Paralyzed Veterans doctrine. Under that doctrine, if an agency had given its regulation a definitive interpretation, the agency needed to use the APA’s notice-and-comment process before issuing a significantly revised interpretation. The Court’s ruling today specifies that no notice or comment process is needed for interpretive rules, whether it is an initial interpretation or a subsequently revised one. 

Implications of Court’s Decision 

Today’s ruling means that the DOL’s interpretation excluding mortgage-loan officers from the administrative exemption stands. More broadly, it means that federal agencies, such as the DOL, are permitted to issue and amend interpretations of their regulations that will take effect immediately without any advance notice to the regulated parties. Accordingly, employers should stay on top of new developments so as not to miss any new regulatory interpretations that may impact their employment practices.  

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

December 23, 2014

National Labor Relations Board continues down a controversial path!

By  Steven M. Gutierrez         Gutierrez.Steven

In recent years, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has issued some notable decisions that impact both union and non-union employers nationwide.  In the past month, two important pronouncements have been made by the NLRB.  Both are controversial; however, anyone that has been following the last several years’ NLRB activity, neither was unexpected. 

The first pronouncement is found in a holding of the NLRB issued on December 11, 2014 in Purple Communications, Inc., 361 NLRB No. 126.  In this matter, Purple Communication’s electronic communications policy, which prohibited employees of Purple Communications from using the company’s email and communication systems in activities on behalf of organizations that had no professional or business affiliation with the company, was found unlawful.  In holding that the policy was unlawful, the NLRB overruled Register Guard.  Under Register Guard, employers could prohibit employees from using the employer’s email system, provided that the ban was not applied discriminatorily.  Under the new Purple Communications standard, there is now a presumption that employees who have been given access to the employer’s communication system are entitled to use that system to engage in concerted protected activity during their non-working time.  Employers who can show special circumstances can justify a ban on this kind of communication, but the burden will be high and the ban must be supported by evidence that there is a specific business interest at issue. 

The second pronouncement comes from the issuance of a final rule, on December 12, 2014, when the NLRB amended representation election procedures.  The new rules become effective on April 14, 2015.  Pursuant to the final rule, the time period between filing of a union election petition and the date of the election is reduced and expedited.  What normally would have taken six to seven weeks, will now be accomplished in 10-21 days.  Further, issues related to voter eligibility and bargaining unit inclusion are resolved after the election.  Notably, an employer will now be required to submit a “Statement of Position” prior to the pre-election hearing, and will be found to waive arguments concerning the election that are not raised in the Statement of Position. This new rule will most certainly make it easier for unions to organize and reduce the time an employer previously had to communicate with its employees in advance of a union petition requesting a vote.

Based upon these two developments and others in the past year, you can be virtually certain that the NLRB will continue with its controversial ways in the coming year.  It is clear to this author, the NLRB would like to make it easy for unions to assert greater influence and stem the tide of the continued decline in membership.

 

September 2, 2014

Benefit Plans: Upcoming Compliance Deadlines and End of Year Planning

By Bret Busacker and Bret Clark

Now that fall is in the air and school has started, we thought this would be a good time to summarize some of the key health and welfare benefit deadlines that are approaching this fall:Busacker_B

September 22

Updated Business Associate Agreements. New HIPAA privacy and security rules adopted last year require revisions to most HIPAA business associate agreements by September 22, 2014. Employer-sponsored health plans that are subject to HIPAA (generally including self-insured health plans and all health flexible spending arrangements (FSAs)) are required to have agreements with business associates, Clark_Bservice providers dealing with participant health information on behalf of the plan, that require business associates to comply with the HIPAA privacy and security rules.  Your business associates may have already contacted you about revising your agreements. However, employers are ultimately responsible to identify all business associates and ensure that compliant business associate agreements are in place before the deadline.

September 30

Summary Annual Report for Calendar Year Plans. Plans (including retirement plans and welfare plans) that filed the 2013 Form 5500 by July 31, 2014 must provide the Summary Annual Report for the 2013 calendar year to plan participants no later than September 30, 2014. Plans that file the 2013 Form 5500 extension to file by October 15, 2014 must provide the Summary Annual Report by December 15, 2014.

October 14

Medicare Part D Notice of Creditable Coverage. Employers who offer prescription drug coverage to employees and retirees should provide a notice to plan participants and beneficiaries who are eligible for Medicare Part D (or to all participants) by October 14, 2014 stating whether the employer prescription drug coverage is creditable coverage.

November 5

Deadline to Obtain Health Plan Identifier. All self-insured larger group health plans (those with annual costs of $5 million or more) must obtain a unique group health plan identification number (HPID) from CMS by November 5, 2014. The HPID will be used in electronic communications involving plan-related health information. For this reason, third party administrators of self-insured plans will either obtain the HPID or will coordinate with the plan sponsor in obtaining the HPID. Employers should confirm with their TPA that the plan will have an HPID by the deadline. Please note that employers should obtain an HPID for each group health plan they maintain. Accordingly, employers who have established a single wrap-around group health plan that incorporates all of the group health plans of the employer may only need to obtain a single HPID. However, employers who maintain separate HRA, FSA, and/or medical/dental/vision plans may be required to obtain one HPID for each such group health plan. Smaller group health plans have until November 5, 2015 to obtain an HPID. Please go to this website for more information.

November 15

Transitional Reinsurance Fee Enrollment Information Due. Self-insured health plans must submit their enrollment information to HHS by November 15, 2014 for purposes of calculating the 2014 Transitional Reinsurance fee for 2014. Self-insured health plans that are self-administered are exempt from the Transitional Reinsurance Fee in 2015 and 2016, but must pay the fee for 2014. Based on the enrollment information provided to HHS in 2014, self-insured plans will pay the fee beginning in January 2015.

General Fall Planning (no specific deadline)

ACA Shared Responsibility Planning. The Affordable Care Act employer shared responsibility penalties will begin to be imposed on employers with 100 or more full-time or full-time equivalent employees beginning January 1, 2015. Employers should start now to establish a policy for purposes of determining whether the employer will be subject to the ACA employer shared responsibility penalties and whether the employer is covering those full-time employees that must be offered coverage in order to avoid the shared responsibility penalty.

Summary of Benefits and Coverage, Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act Notice, Medicaid/CHIP Premium Assistance Notice, HIPPA Notice of Privacy Practices, and Exchange Notice. Employers should confirm that these notices are included with the enrollment materials provided to participants during open enrollment and to participants at the time of any mid-year enrollment due to becoming newly eligible for the plan. If these notices are not included with enrollment materials prepared by your provider, consider supplementing the enrollment materials with these notices. Employers should also confirm that their COBRA notices have been updated to reflect recent changes to the model COBRA notice to reflect the establishment of the Health Marketplace Exchanges.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.