Category Archives: Family/Medical Leave (FMLA)

October 19, 2016

Firing Employee On FMLA Leave Is Risky, But Not Always Unlawful

By Mark Wiletsky6a013486823d73970c01b8d1dc5d4a970c-120wi

Terminating an employee out on Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave is risky business. After all, the major tenet behind the FMLA is to permit employees to take job-protected time off when serious health or family concerns arise.

But does that mean that an employer may never terminate an employee out on leave? No, but you better have well-supported business reasons for your termination decision, and be prepared to defend your decision in court. A recent decision by Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals offers a useful look at how a Colorado employer did it right and avoided liability for an FMLA-interference lawsuit.

Twelve-Year Employee Struggles After Promotion

Hired in 2002, Kris Olson began working for Penske Logistics, LLC as a dispatcher. Over the next ten years, he was promoted three times, including his 2013 promotion to Operations Manager of Penske’s Denver warehouse. In that role, Olson supervised over 30 employees and was responsible for hiring, financial records, moving and tracking inventory, conducting regular inventory audits, and other managerial tasks.

In his first year as Operations Manager, Olson appeared to be performing adequately, but not exceptionally, scoring mostly “2” and “3” grades on a 5-point scale on his 2013 performance review. He was told he needed to continue to train in his position. In January 2014, however, Penske issued a written warning to Olson for failing to fire an employee who had violated safety rules. Olson was told that any future failure to follow procedures would result in more severe discipline, up to and including termination. In June (about five months later), Olson’s supervisor, Rick Elliott, put Olson on a 60-day “action plan” that instructed Olson to hire more workers, process inventory more quickly, and respond promptly to phone calls and emails. The “action plan” concluded with a warning that failure to meet all requirements would result in Olson’s immediate termination. Olson appeared to follow the instructions in his “action plan.”

On July 9, 2014, Olson requested FMLA leave, which was approved. Olson’s last day at the warehouse before going out on leave was Friday, July 18, 2014.

Employer Discovers Employee’s Misconduct

July 18th proved to be a pivotal day for Olson. On that day, Elliott received a monthly grade that primary client, Whirlpool, gave the warehouse for June – a “D.” With Olson out on leave, Elliott asked a supervisor at another Penske warehouse, Nicki Brurs, to come to Denver to investigate why Whirlpool rated the Denver warehouse so low. Brurs found that there were at least 152 discrepancies between the warehouse’s inventory records and its actual inventory. In addition, Brurs learned that the warehouse was 567 audits behind schedule, having done only 37 random audits over the preceding few months.

At that same time, Elliott also discovered that over the previous few months, Olson had not billed Whirlpool for extra work performed by the warehouse. Earlier, Elliott had asked Olson why he had not billed Whirlpool for extra work and Olson answered that there had not been any extra work for which to bill. On July 28, however, Elliott learned that there had been several instances of extra work for Whirlpool, meaning Olson had lied to him.

By August 1, Elliott had made up his mind that Olson had to go. He sent a report to human resources summarizing the problems he had discovered with Olson, including his dishonesty. He detailed that Olson had hidden inventory losses by creating records for an imaginary storage location – a “ghost stow” – that allowed Olson to hide inventory losses for four years. He also reported that Olson had instructed his staff not to tell Whirlpool when inventory was missing, but instead, to report the missing units as damages. Elliott told HR that he wanted to bring in a temporary replacement as Operations Manager while Olson was out on FMLA leave and fire Olson on his first day back to work. HR agreed that Olson should be fired.

Despite its decision, Penske continued its investigation into Olson’s misconduct. Over the next couple of weeks, Penske discovered additional inventory errors and “ghost stows,” resulting in more than $120,000 of errors in the warehouse’s records. It also concluded that Olson had failed to train his employees, failed to enforce attendance policies, failed to return damaged items, and other lesser performance issues. Read more >>

March 8, 2016

Paid Sick Leave Requirements For Federal Contractors: What To Expect

Wiletsky_MBy Mark Wiletsky

An estimated 437,000 workers who do not currently receive paid sick leave will become eligible for up to seven days of annual paid sick leave under recently released proposed regulations from the Department of Labor (DOL). Last fall, President Obama issued Executive Order 13706 to require federal contractors to provide paid sick leave to employees who work on covered contracts. If you are or expect to be a federal contractor, here is what you’ll need to know about the proposed rules.

Accrual of Paid Sick Time

For every 30 hours worked on, or in connection with, a covered contract, employees must accrue a minimum of one hour of paid sick leave, with a maximum cap of at least 56 hours. Contractors must calculate each employee’s accrual at the conclusion of each workweek. Alternatively, if a contractor does not want the trouble of calculating accruals, the proposed rules allow a contractor to provide an employee with at least 56 hours of paid sick leave at the beginning of each accrual year.

Contractors must provide written notification to covered employees about the amount of paid sick leave that the employee has accrued but not used. Notifications are required at the following times:

  • at least monthly
  • each time the employee requests to use paid sick leave
  • upon separation of employment
  • upon reinstatement of paid sick leave, and
  • whenever the employee asks for this information (but no more than once a week).

Notifications of sick leave benefits that accompany paychecks or are accessible online will generally satisfy this requirement.

Use of Paid Sick Leave

Under the proposed rules, an employee may use paid sick leave for an absence resulting from any of the following:

  • the employee’s medical condition, illness or injury (physical or mental)
  • for the employee to obtain diagnosis, care, or preventive care from a health care provider for the above conditions
  • caring for the employee’s child, parent, spouse, domestic partner, or another individual in a close relationship with the employee (by blood or affinity) who has a medical condition, illness or injury (physical or mental) or the need to obtain diagnosis, care, or preventive care for the same
  • domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, that results in a medical condition, illness or injury (physical or mental), or causes the need to obtain additional counseling, seek relocation or assistance from a victim services organization, take legal action, or assist an individual in engaging in any of these activities.

Definitions for these terms are included in the proposed regulations. Contractors must permit employees to use their accrued paid sick leave in increments of no greater than one hour.

Leave Requests and Medical Certifications

Employees must be permitted to make a verbal or written request to use paid sick leave. If leave is foreseeable, the request must be made at least seven calendar days in advance. When not foreseeable, the request must be made as soon as practicable. Any denial of leave must be provided in writing to the employee, with an explanation for the denial.

Contractors may only require a medical certification issued by a health care provider (or other documentation related to domestic violence) if the employee is absent for three or more consecutive full workdays.

Carryover and Reinstatement Of Unused Leave

Contractors are permitted to cap the amount of paid sick leave that employees may accrue to 56 hours each year. But, contractors must carry over unused, accrued paid sick leave from one year to the next, with a cap of at least 56 hours of accrued paid sick leave at any one time. In addition, under the proposed regulations, contractors must reinstate an employee’s unused, accrued paid sick leave if the employee is rehired by the same contractor or a successor contractor within 12 months after a job separation. Contractors will not be required to pay out any unused, accrued paid sick time at the termination of employment.

Interaction With FMLA and Existing Company PTO Policies

Paid sick leave under these regulations may run concurrently with Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave but it does not otherwise change a contractor’s obligations to comply with the FMLA. In other words, if an employee is eligible for time off under the FMLA, the contractor must meet FMLA requirements for notices and certifications regardless of whether the employee is eligible to use accrued paid sick leave.

For contractors with an existing paid time off (PTO) policy, the policy will meet the requirements of the proposed regulations if the paid time off policy satisfies all the obligations under the proposed rules. But, if it does not meet all of the requirements under the regulations, such as not permitting an employee to use paid time off for reasons related to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, then the PTO policy would not suffice. In such cases, the contractor would have to either amend its PTO policy to make it compliant, or separately provide paid sick leave under the proposed regulations in addition to its PTO.

Covered Contracts and Employees

The Executive Order applies to new contracts and replacements for expiring contracts with the federal government that result from solicitations (or awards outside the solicitation process) issued on or after January 1, 2017. It essentially applies to four major categories of contracts:

  • procurement contracts for construction covered by the Davis-Bacon Act
  • service contracts covered by the McNamara-O-Hara Service Contract Act
  • concessions contracts, and
  • contracts in connection with federal property or lands and relating to offering services for federal employees, their dependents, or the general public.

Employees covered by the Executive Order, and therefore entitled to paid sick leave, include any person performing work on, or in connection with, a covered contract. There is a narrow exclusion for employees who perform work “in connection with” covered contracts but who spend less than 20 percent of their hours in a particular workweek in connection with such contract work.

Next Steps

Interested parties and the general public may submit comments on the proposed regulations on or before March 28, 2016. The DOL then will review the comments and decide whether to make any revisions before issuing a final rule sometime before the end of this year.

As you can see, many of the requirements of these proposed regulations differ from what we typically see in an employer’s sick leave or PTO policy. Consequently, employers who expect to seek or renew federal contracts after January 1, 2017 should review their existing sick leave and/or PTO policies to determine what changes may be required in order to comply with the proposed regulations.  The devil is in the details on this one so don’t wait until the last minute to get your policies and procedures in place.

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June 22, 2015

New FMLA Certification Forms Include GINA Safe Harbor Notice

Biggs_JBy Jude Biggs 

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) unceremoniously published new FMLA forms with an expiration date of May 2018. The only significant revision is the addition of a notice to employees and health care providers on the medical certification forms informing them not to reveal genetic information in violation of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). 

Genetic Information Off-Limits to Employers 

GINA, which went into effect in late 2009, applies to employers with 15 or more employees. It not only makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate or retaliate against employees and applicants because of their genetic information, but it also prohibits employers from requesting, requiring, purchasing or disclosing genetic information. 

Genetic information is defined to include information about an individual’s genetic tests and the genetic tests of an individual’s family members, genetic services and an individual’s family medical history. Family medical history is included because it often reveals whether someone has an increased risk of getting a disease, disorder or condition in the future. 

FMLA and GINA Intersect 

Under the FMLA, employers may require that an employee requesting leave for his or her own serious health condition or to care for a family member with a serious health condition provide a medical certification form completed by a health care provider. Through the medical certification form, health care providers provide medical facts about the condition, such as the expected duration, the nature of treatments, and whether the employee is unable to perform his or her job functions as well as information about the amount of leave needed. In some circumstances, responses by health care providers may reveal genetic information that is protected by GINA. 

Because of this intersection of the FMLA and GINA, the regulations implementing GINA offer suggested language that covered employers may use to specify that no genetic information should be provided when medical information is offered to support a request for FMLA leave. By utilizing this safe harbor language and advising the employee and the health care provider not to provide genetic information when completing the FMLA medical certification form, the inadvertent receipt of genetic information by the employer will not be deemed a violation of GINA. 

In the past, the DOL’s model FMLA certification forms lacked this GINA safe harbor language. Consequently, employers had to offer it separately or utilize their own FMLA forms in order to take advantage of GINA’s safe harbor provision. Now, the DOL has included the following language in its model FMLA certification forms: 

Do not provide information about genetic tests, as defined in 29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(f), or genetic services, as defined in 29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(e). 

The certification form for an employee’s own serious health condition includes a statement that no information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in the employee’s family members, 29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(b), should be provided. 

Use New FMLA Forms Or Update Your Own Forms 

The new FMLA model forms, with fillable form fields, are linked here: 

Take steps now to update your FMLA practices to use the new DOL forms, or if you use your own FMLA forms, update them to reflect the added recommended language.

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March 23, 2015

FMLA and FLSA Lawsuits Are Increasing

Wiletsky_MBy Mark Wiletsky 

The U.S. federal courts saw a whopping 26.3 percent increase in the number of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) lawsuits filed last year over the prior fiscal year, according to statistics recently released by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Wage and hour lawsuits alleging a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) were up a significant 8.8 percent. These filings are the highest they’ve been in the past 20 years of annual statistics reported by the courts. 

The increasing numbers of lawsuits brought under those two employment laws may reflect how difficult it is to understand and administer wage and hour and leave laws. The increase also may be due to the heightened awareness by workers of their rights and benefits under these laws. Regardless of the cause of the increase, the numbers suggest that it is worthwhile for employers to focus their compliance efforts in these two areas. 

Self-Audit Your Pay and Leave Practices 

Before you find yourself defending a lawsuit, take the time to review your payroll and FMLA policies and practices, including these often tricky issues: 

  • Classifying workers as exempt versus non-exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay requirements
  • Calculating each non-exempt employee’s regular rate of pay and overtime rate
  • Rounding time at the beginning and end of shifts
  • Automatic deductions for meal periods
  • Treating workers as independent contractors rather than employees
  • Tracking time worked remotely or “off-the-clock”
  • Providing FMLA notices within required time period
  • Calculating FMLA leave for workers with irregular schedules
  • Administering intermittent FMLA leave
  • Not penalizing employees who have taken FMLA leave 

If your self-audit reveals any irregularities, take steps to revise your policies and practices to bring them into compliance with the applicable laws. Don’t forget state and local laws that may impose additional requirements related to pay and leave administration. If in doubt, don’t hesitate to consult with your legal counsel so that you don’t become one of next year’s statistics.

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February 23, 2015

Exempt Employee Salary Deductions for a Reduced Schedule

Brad CaveBy Brad Cave

Classifying an employee as exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) comes with a trade-off.  Most employers know that exempt employees are not entitled to overtime.  But, in exchange for that benefit, the FLSA limits employers’ ability to reduce the exempt employee’s salary, even when they are not coming to work.  However, exempt employees are not immune from needing time off of work to recover from a medical condition, to settle an aging parent into an assisting living arrangement or to handle a long-term behavioral issue with a child. If an employee seeks some time off each week to take care of such matters, you may agree to allow the employee to work a reduced work schedule for a period of time. But when payday rolls around, must you pay the employee his or her full weekly salary or can you deduct pay to reflect the reduced work schedule? Missing this answer can have significant ramifications for the employee’s exempt status.

FLSA Salary Basis

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, exempt employees’ pay must meet the salary basis test, which means that the employee must receive a predetermined amount of salary for each workweek, without reductions because of variations in the quality or quantity of work during the week. Thus, deductions from salary for reduced working hours is generally not permitted under the salary basis test. Deducting pay for the missed time could result in the loss of the employee’s exempt status. However, two exceptions may apply to your employee.

FMLA Leave Can Result in Pay Deduction

If the employee’s reduced schedule constitutes unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the FLSA regulations permit employers to “pay a proportionate part of the full salary for time actually worked” without risk to the exempt status. This means that if your employee is missing work for an FMLA-qualifying reason, you may deduct pay from their weekly salary to reflect the unpaid FMLA leave time.

PTO, Sick Leave or Other Paid Leaves

If the employee has accrued PTO, sick leave or another type of company-provided paid leave, you can require that the employee use such paid leave to cover the partial day absences, as long as the employee continues to receive the full amount of their weekly salary. And, once the employee uses up all of their accrued paid leave, you can make salary deductions for full-day, but not partial-day, absences.

Saved Wages Vs. Loss of Exempt Status

Deductions from an exempt employee’s salary should be made only after careful consideration of the potential consequences. After all, the salary you save now for missed time may seem trivial if you lose the exempt status of this and all similarly-situated employees and owe them overtime for the past two years.

September 23, 2014

Cheyenne Jury Awards $1,481,000+ On FMLA Retaliation Claim

Cave_BBy Brad Cave

The series of large verdicts for Wyoming employees seems to be marching forward.  The most recent example occurred recently when a Cheyenne jury awarded over $740,000 to a trona miner after deciding that he was fired because he took FMLA leave.  With liquidated damages available in an FMLA case, the Wyoming court entered judgment in an amount in excess of $1.48 million in favor of the employee. This case stands as yet another example about the importance of supervisor training and careful, well-documented and consistent decision making. 

Long Term Employee With A Pain in the Neck.  We first told you about this case in March of this year, when the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Wyoming for trial after reversing the trial court’s dismissal of the case.  (Safety Violation or Too Much Intermittent FMLA Leave?). Here is a short recap of the facts. 

Steven Smothers had been employed by Solvay Chemical for 18 years when his employment was terminated.  Smothers had experienced back problems since 1994 resulting in three surgeries on his neck and other medical procedures, and an extended course of medical treatment by specialists.  Over the years, Smothers took intermittent FMLA leave for his medical appointments and when he was unable to work due to the pain.  The amount of FMLA leave he took did not go unnoticed.  He was pressured by the production superintendent to change shifts to lessen the additional overtime cost caused by his absences, but such a change would have cost him about $7,000 per year in shift differential pay.   Solvay also gave Smothers a negative rating on his performance evaluation because of his absences, and he was told that he was rejected for a promotion because of the leave. 

Smothers’ Safety Rule Violation.    In August 2008, Smothers and his coworkers were performing an acid wash, which Solvay did every six months to clean residual trona out of the equipment.   When Smothers noticed that a damaged spool piece had caused a leak, he began to fix it without obtaining a line break permit which was required by Solvay safety rules.  Smothers and a co-worker, Mahaffey, argued about whether the permit was necessary, and after Smothers removed the spool piece without first getting the permit, Mahaffey immediately reported Smothers’ actions to a supervisor. 

Solvay terminated Smothers’ employment on August 28, 2008, based on a joint decision of six Solvay managers.   Five of the six decision makers testified that the argument between Smothers and Mahaffey weighed heavily in the group’s decision to fire Smothers. Although the trial court originally dismissed the case, the Tenth Circuit believed that Smothers had presented enough evidence to create doubt about the real reasons for Smothers’ termination.   So, the case was sent back to the trial court for trial. 

What’s the Real Reason for Smothers’ termination? Like all retaliation cases, the jury in this trial was asked to decide whether Smothers was fired for a safety rule violation, as the employer contended, or because his employer retaliated against him for using intermittent FMLA leave or discriminated against him because of his disability.   We don’t have a transcript of the trial, so we cannot tell you what evidence the jury heard or what facts persuaded the jury.  We do know that the Tenth Circuit reasoned that the jury could disbelieve Solvay’s reasons because: 

  • Supervisors criticized Smothers informally and in his performance evaluation for taking FMLA-protected leave, and rejected him for a promotion because of his time off;
  • Solvay did not give Smothers an opportunity to describe or explain his side of the argument with Mahaffey, even though the argument was a central reason for the decision to terminate Smothers’ employment;
  • Other Solvay employees who committed safety rule violations were not terminated. 

And the Jury Returns.The jury found in favor of Smothers on his FMLA claim, and awarded Smothers the amount of $740,535 for his lost wages and benefits from the date of his termination, August 27, 2008, through the date of trial.  But the potential damages don’t stop with the lost wages.  Under the FMLA, the successful employee may be entitled to an additional amount equivalent to the jury’s award for liquidated damages – in other words, a penalty against the employer for the violation.  As a result, the court has entered judgment against Solvay in the total amount of $1,481,070, twice the amount of the jury’s verdict, plus interest since the date of termination.  The trial court declined to award Smothers any future lost wages.  However, Smothers is entitled to an additional judgment for his reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, which could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the total. 

Bottom Line.  Regardless of the final number after adding prejudgment interest and attorneys’ fees, this is one of the largest judgments ever entered against a Wyoming employer.  We cannot speculate about what evidence led the jury to its verdict, but we can share some lessons, with the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, that will help any employer avoid this kind of result: 

  • Managers and supervisors must be trained and committed to the fact that taking FMLA leave is protected by federal law, and must not be the reason for formal criticism, denied opportunities, or informal complaining.  FMLA-protected leave cannot be held against an employee for any reason whatsoever.  Any comment or suggestion to the contrary can be used as evidence of pretext.
  • Investigations must be thorough and even-handed.  While we don’t know all the evidence in this case, the jury may have heard that Solvay spent much more time asking Mahaffey about the argument with Smothers, while never asking Smothers for his side of the argument.  Everybody should get the same opportunity to tell their side of the story.   An inadequate investigation can be used as evidence of pretext.
  • Employees must be treated consistently.  Smothers had evidence that other Solvay employees intentionally violated safety rules without being terminated.  Employers need to mete out comparable discipline for comparable violations, or have a compelling reason why an employee gets tougher punishment.
  • Employers must respect long years of service.  Of course, keeping a job for eighteen years does nothing to technically change the legal relationship or create any new rights or protection for the employee.  But, after that length of time with a good performance record, it becomes difficult for a jury to believe that termination is an appropriate response for one incident. 

Wyoming juries have delivered substantial employee verdicts over the last few years.  Employers should pay attention. 

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May 9, 2014

Colorado Legislative Wrap-Up: Wage Theft, Disability Definition and Workers’ Comp Physician Choice Bills Pass

By Emily Hobbs-Wright 

The Colorado General Assembly wrapped up its 2014 Legislative Session this week, passing a number of bills that change the landscape for Colorado employers.  Here is a look at the significant employment-related bills that passed and are expected to be signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper as well as other bills that were introduced but did not make it through the legislative process. 

Bills that Passed This Session. 

Wage Protection Act of 2014.  Senate Bill 14-005 establishes an administrative procedure to adjudicate wage claims under Colorado law. For wages and compensation earned on or after January 1, 2015, the Colorado Division of Labor may receive complaints and adjudicate claims for nonpayment of wages or compensation of $7,500 or less.  The written demand for unpaid wages to the employer may come from or on behalf of the employee and is satisfied if a notice of complaint filed with the Division is sent to the employer.  In addition to existing fines that may be levied against employers who fail to pay wages, the new law allows the Director of the Division of Labor or a hearing officer to impose a fine of $250 on an employer who fails to respond to a notice of complaint or any other notice from the Division when a response is required.  All fines collected will be credited to the State Wage Theft Enforcement Fund to be used for enforcement of this law. 

The Wage Protection Act also requires Colorado employers to keep payroll records, including the information contained in an employee’s itemized pay statement, for at least 3 years after payment of wages and to make such records available to the employee and the Division of Labor. (C.R.S. §8-4-103 (4.5)).  Employers who violate this record retention requirement are subject to a fine of $250 per employee per month, up to a maximum fine of $7,500.  

This new law also provides for the recovery of reasonable attorney fees and court costs for an employee who recovers unpaid wages under Colorado’s minimum wage requirement.  Additionally, the new law sets forth procedural requirements for employers responding to a demand for payment and procedures for resolving wage disputes through the administrative procedure.  The majority of the new provisions in this law go into effect on January 1, 2015. 

Definition of Disabled Individuals Aligned with Americans With Disabilities Act. Senate Bill 14-118 conforms state law definitions of a disability to match definitions under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Specifically, the terms “disability” and “qualified individual with a disability” under Colorado Revised Statute section 24-34-301 are given the same meaning as under the ADA. This bill also moves the definition of “sexual orientation” out of the Employment Practices definition section (C.R.S. § 24-34-401) and into the general definition section for the Civil Rights Division (C.R.S. § 24-34-301.) It also changes the term “assistance dog” to “service animal” and provides additional penalties for violations of the rights of an individual with a disability who uses a service animal and for persons who cause harm to service animals.  The law also expanded the available remedies for retaliation and violations of the fair housing and public accommodations discrimination prohibitions.  Once signed into law by the Governor, these provisions will go into effect on August 6, 2014. 

Expanded Doctor Choice for Workers’ Compensation. House Bill 14-1383 changes the Colorado workers’ compensation law to allow injured workers more choice of doctors.  Currently, an employer or workers’ compensation insurer must provide a list of at least 2 physicians or corporate medical providers from which an injured employee may select a treating physician.  This bill expands that number to 4.  There are additional provisions related to the location and shared ownership status of the health care providers.  After signed into law by the Governor, this law will become effective on April 1, 2015. 

Clarification of Credit Report Restriction Allowing Employment Use By Financial Institutions.  Senate Bill 14-102 amends last year’s Employment Opportunity Act which restricts an employer’s use of credit reports.  This amendment clarifies that all positions at a bank or financial institution are jobs for which credit information is deemed to be “substantially related to the employee’s current or potential job.” As a result, financial institutions will be able to obtain and use credit information on employees and applicants when making employment decisions for all job positions.  Governor Hickenlooper signed this bill into law on March 27, 2014 and it became effective immediately. 

Bills that Failed to Pass This Session. 

Paid Sick Leave.  Called the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act (FAMLI), Senate Bill 14-196 sought to create an insurance program to provide pay to employees who take unpaid FMLA or sick leave.  The program would be paid for by employees who pay premiums into a “fund” in the state treasury; employers would not be funding it.  Eligible employees would be able to receive a percentage of their pay while on leave, not to exceed $1,000 per week. The bill would have prohibited Colorado employers from discharging, discriminating or retaliating against employees who seek to use benefits under the program or assist in a related-proceeding.  Advocated by the Colorado chapter of 9 to 5, this bill, introduced on April 15th, differed from previous paid sick leave bills as it did not require employers to fund the program.  On May 1, this bill was postponed indefinitely in committee and therefore, did not make it to a vote. 

Drug Testing Misdemeanor. House Bill 14-1040 would have established a drug misdemeanor for an employee who is legally required to undergo drug testing as a condition of his or her job and either tests positive for a controlled substance without a prescription, or knowingly defrauds the administration of the drug test by an employer.  To “defraud the administration of a drug test” is defined in the bill to include submitting a sample from someone else or a sample collected at a different time or some other conduct intended to produce a false or misleading outcome.  This bill passed the House but the Senate sent it to committee where it was postponed indefinitely. 

Anti-Union Bills. – House Bills 14-1087 would have prohibited collective bargaining for the state’s public employees.  House Bill 14-1098 and Senate Bill 14-113 would have prohibited employers from entering into agreements to require employees to join a union.  All three bills failed shortly after introduction as expected due to the democratic majority in both chambers of Colorado’s legislature. 

The bills that passed in the 2014 Legislative Session reflect a continued trend at the state level to implement new or refine existing employment-related laws.  We will keep you posted on any further developments.    

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March 10, 2014

Safety Violation Or Too Much Intermittent FMLA Leave? Tenth Circuit Says Jury Must Decide Wyoming Employee’s FMLA and ADA Case

By Brad Cave 

Did Solvay Chemicals fire long-time employee Steven Smothers because of a first-time safety violation or because the company was tired of his frequent absences due to an ongoing medical disability?  The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that Smothers provided sufficient evidence to suggest that Solvay’s stated reason for his termination was pretextual, allowing his claims for unlawful retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to proceed.  Smothers v. Solvay Chem., Inc., No. 12-8013 (Jan. 21, 2014).  The Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on his state law claim for breach of an implied employment contract. 

Medical Treatments and Severe Pain Lead to Frequent FMLA-Protected Absences 

For eighteen years, Smothers worked as a surface maintenance mechanic in Solvay’s trona mine in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. The company considered him to be an excellent mechanic who did great work and got along with everyone.  In 1994, Smothers injured his neck and developed degenerative disc disease in his spine.  Over the next five years, Smothers had three surgeries to his neck as well as numerous other medical procedures.  Despite treatment by a specialist, Smothers continued to have severe ongoing neck pain, severe migraine headaches and lower back problems.  At times, Smothers was unable to work without pain treatments and he often was able to sleep only a few hours each night due to the pain. 

Smothers asked for and was granted FMLA leave for intermittent absences caused by his condition.  Managers and co-workers began to complain about his absenteeism, especially because he worked on the graveyard shift where there were fewer workers to absorb his absences resulting in increased overtime costs.  Solvay’s production superintendent Melvin Wallendorf pressured Smothers to change to the day shift, but Smothers refused as the shift change would have cost him about $7,000 a year.  Solvay’s human resources department advised Wallendorf that urging Smothers to switch shifts would violate the FMLA so Wallendorf stopped pressuring Smothers but did not stop complaining about his absences. 

At one point, Wallendorf and Rick Wehrle, Smothers’ direct supervisor, gave Smothers a poor performance rating on his evaluation due to his absenteeism.  In 2005 or 2006, Smothers applied for a promotion but was told that he was rejected because of his absences. 

Safety Issue Explodes into Argument 

In 2008, the graveyard crew conducted a routine maintenance acid wash to remove build up in its equipment.  After a line ruptured, Smothers saw that a damaged “spool piece” had caused the problem and prepared to remove it.  Another mechanic, Dan Mahaffey, suggested that Smothers wait for a line break permit, which is a form that certifies that employees have completed a checklist of precautions before a line can be safely disconnected.  Smothers said that a permit wasn’t required because the line was already broken.  Mahaffey and Smothers then argued.  Mahaffey offered help on the repair which Smothers refused.  Mahaffey took offense and accused Smothers of hypocrisy since Smothers had previously reported others for safety violations.  Smothers made an offensive comment to Mahaffey and told him he did not want his kind of help.  Smothers removed the broken piece and began the repair.  

Mahaffey immediately reported the argument and Smothers’ removal of the spool piece without a line break permit to the area supervisor.  Later that same day, three managers called Smothers in to discuss the safety violation.  Although completing the line break permit may not have been absolutely necessary, Smothers later conceded that he should have locked out the pump valve before removing the part according to Solvay’s safety policies. Smothers apologized for not locking the pump valve before removing the piece and promised it wouldn’t happen again.  Smothers was sent home pending an investigation.  

Six managers were involved in deciding what to do about the argument and the safety violation.  Three of the managers personally talked with Mahaffey about the argument but no one spoke to Smothers about it.  About eight days later, Solvay fired Smothers.  Smothers sued in Wyoming federal court, alleging, among other claims, unlawful FMLA retaliation, ADA discrimination and breach of an implied employment contract based on Solvay’s employee handbook. 

FMLA Claim Bolstered By Disparate Treatment and Previous Retaliatory Acts 

The trial court granted summary judgment to Solvay on Smothers’ FMLA and ADA claims.  On appeal, the Tenth Circuit decided that Smothers presented enough evidence for a trial about whether Solvay’s real reason for his termination was his use of FMLA leave or his disability.  Smothers provided evidence that other employees who committed similar safety violations were not fired.  Five of the six decision-makers who fired Smothers were also involved in at least one decision in which a similarly situated employee was treated more favorably after violating the same or comparable safety rules.  Smothers also pointed to the negative comments, negative performance rating, failure to promote and pressure to change shifts because of his FMLA-protected absences as evidence that the safety violation was a pretext for firing him for his FMLA leave.  Moreover, Smothers showed that the decision-makers had failed to sufficiently investigate the argument he had with Mahaffey, basing their decision almost entirely on Mahaffey’s version of events.  The Court decided that a reasonable jury could find that Solvay’s investigation into the quarrel was not fair or adequate.  Based on this evidence, the Court found that there were issues of fact on whether Solvay’s termination reasons were pretextual and reversed the dismissal of Smothers’ FMLA retaliation claim. 

Smothers Was Disabled Under ADA 

Smothers also asserted that his firing was in violation of the ADA.  He presented evidence that his medical condition was an impairment that substantially limited a major life activity, specifically his ability to sleep.  Because the facts would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that Smothers’ sleep was substantially limited, Smothers satisfied his burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability discrimination.  As with the FMLA claim, the Court found sufficient evidence that Solvay’s stated termination reasons may have been a pretext for disability discrimination. Therefore, the Court reversed the dismissal of Smothers’ ADA claim as well. 

No Breach of Implied Contract Based on Employee Handbook 

Smothers also alleged that Solvay violated the terms of its employee handbook, giving rise to a claim for breach of implied contract under Wyoming law.  The Court disagreed.  Wyoming recognizes a claim for breach of implied contract if an employer fails to follow its own required procedures, such as the procedures laid out in an employee handbook.  Solvay’s handbook contained a four-step progressive disciplinary process, with termination as the last step.  But it also contained a provision that allowed Solvay to terminate an employee immediately for a serious offense, including a safety violation.  Because the discipline policy unambiguously gave Solvay the discretion to fire employees who violate safety rules, the Court found that Solvay’s decision to terminate Smothers for violating a safety rule did not violate the terms of the employee handbook.  Therefore, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of Smothers’ breach of implied contract claim. 

Back To Court They Go 

We don’t know whether Smothers or Solvay will prevail if this case goes to trial but we do know that the appellate court thought that some of the evidence about the actions of Solvay managers could demonstrate that Solvay acted with a discriminatory motive:   

  • Supervisors and co-workers gave Smothers a hard time about taking FMLA-protected leave.
  • Solvay failed to properly investigate all sides in the quarrel, accepting one employee’s version of events as fact.
  • The decision-makers treated Smothers more harshly than other similarly-situated employees who had violated similar safety rules.
  • Managers and supervisors considered Smothers’ FMLA absences when providing his performance evaluation and rejecting him for a promotion.  

Evidence of these actions prevented Solvay from obtaining a grant of summary judgment on appeal. While Solvay may dispute Smothers’ evidence when the case actually goes to trial,  this case stands as a lesson about the kinds of supervisory comments and actions that can feed into a discrimination claim, and a good reminder of how carefully employers must manage employees with injuries or disabilities.

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December 17, 2013

Colorado Raises Minimum Wage for 2014: Checklist for Complying with New Employment Developments

New YearBy Jude Biggs 

A new year is just around the corner.  Along with champagne toasts and resolutions to lose weight, January 1 typically brings new laws and regulations in Colorado.  2014 is no different.  Colorado employers should plan now for the changes going into effect in 2014. It is also a good time to make sure you are in compliance with the new laws that took effect in 2013.  Here is a checklist to help you stay on the right side of the law. 

  • Colorado Minimum Wage Goes Up to $8.00 per Hour on January 1.  The Colorado Division of Labor has adopted Minimum Wage Order 30 which raises the state minimum wage from $7.78 (2013) to $8.00 per hour, effective January 1, 2014.  The state minimum wage for tipped employees increases to $4.98 per hour, also effective January 1, 2014.  Colorado’s minimum wage is adjusted annually for inflation pursuant to the Colorado Constitution.  If this applies to any of your workforce, update your payroll practices to comply with the new rate on the first of the year.
  • Marijuana may be Legally Purchased and Possessed on January 1.  Adults may legally buy, use and possess small amounts of marijuana in Colorado beginning January 1st.  Because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, Colorado employers may continue to have workplace policies banning its use by employees and prohibiting possession of marijuana on company premises.  Review and if necessary, update your policies to reflect that use of controlled substances and drugs that are illegal under either state or federal law are not permitted.  The new year is a good time to communicate this to your employees.
  • Rules Implementing Employment Opportunity Act (Credit History Law) Effective January 1.  Colorado’s Employment Opportunity Act, section 8-2-126, C.R.S., was enacted last spring and went into effect on July 1, 2013, restricting an employer’s use of credit history information on employees and applicants.  (See our post on that new law.) The Division of Labor has adopted new rules, 7 CCR 1103-4, that go into effect on January 1 to implement the provisions of the act.  The new rules include a couple of new definitions and clarifications not found in the act itself, including that “consumer credit information” does not include income or work history verification and that “prevailing party” means the employee who successfully brings, or the employer who successfully defends, the complaint.  The new rules also describe the enforcement mechanism for violations, including how complaints must be filed, the investigation process, initial decisions and appeals.
  • Rules Implementing Social Media and the Workplace Law Effective January 1.  Last spring, Colorado enacted a law, found at section 8-2-127, C.R.S., that restricts an employer’s access to personal online and social media sites of employees and applicants.  (We previously wrote on that law here.)  The law went into effect on May 11, 2013 but new rules implementing the law go into effect on January 1, 2014.  In large part, the rules, 7 CCR 1103-5, mirror the act itself but add that it is OK for an employer to access information about employees and applicants that is publicly available online.  The new rules also detail the complaint, investigation, decision, appeals and hearing process.
  • 2013 Family Care Act Extends FMLA Coverage to Care for Civil Union and Domestic Partners.  Effective August 7, 2013, Colorado’s Family Care Act, section 8-13.3-201 et seq., C.R.S., extends leave benefits under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to eligible employees to care for their civil union and domestic partners with a serious health condition.  If you are a covered employer under the FMLA, ensure that your FMLA forms, policies and practices provide that eligible employees may take leave to care for a seriously ill or injured civil union or domestic partner.  Also, for multi-state employers subject to the FMLA, remember that if you have employees in states that recognize same-sex marriages, the FMLA definition of “spouse” will include employees’ same-sex spouses due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor (further discussed here).
  • Age 70 Cap on Colorado Age Discrimination Claims Eliminated in 2013.  Colorado’s legislature enacted changes to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA).  Effective August 7, 2013, there is no longer an upper age limit of 70 years old for age discrimination claims under CADA, section 24-34-301, et seq..C.R.S.  This brings Colorado’s age discrimination law in line with the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act which makes it unlawful to discriminate against employees and applicants on the basis of age 40 or older with no upper age limit.
  • Prepare for Changes in Remedies Available for Colorado Discrimination Claims Beginning January 1, 2015.  Colorado added new remedies, including punitive damages, that may be recovered for violations of CADA for claims alleging discrimination or unfair employment practices that accrue on or after January 1, 2015, section 24-34-405. C.R.S.  With a year to prepare, now is the time to get policies in place to address reasonable accommodations, complaint procedures and other good faith measures to resolve workplace discrimination issues. 

Start the year off right by making sure you comply with these new developments in Colorado employment laws. We wish you a happy, healthy, prosperous and compliant 2014! 

For more information, contact Jude at 303-473-2707 or jbiggs@hollandhart.com.


Disclaimer: This article is designed to provide general information on pertinent legal topics. The statements made are provided for educational purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and are not intended to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Holland & Hart LLP. If you have specific questions as to the application of the law to your activities, you should seek the advice of your legal counsel.


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August 14, 2013

DOL Updating FMLA Guidance to Reflect DOMA Decision

By Brad Cave 

New Labor Secretary, Tom Perez, indicated that the Department of Labor (DOL) has updated departmental guidance regarding spousal leave provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to reflect the Supreme Court’s recent decision that struck down certain provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).   As the DOL updates its policies, employers too need to examine and update their FMLA policies.  Here is what you need to know. 

Unconstitutionality of DOMA Means FMLA Spousal Leave Applies to Legally Married Same-Sex Couples 

The Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor focused on Section 3 of DOMA which defined “spouse” as a husband or wife of the opposite sex for purposes of federal laws or regulations.  Because of that definition, legally married same-sex couples were not entitled to federal benefits or rights.  As a result, FMLA leave benefits did not extend to employees needing time off to care for a same-sex spouse with a serious health condition.   

In finding Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional, the Court stated that the regulation of marriage traditionally rests exclusively with the states and the federal government violates equal protection principles by denying rights and benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married under state law.  The result is that federal rights and benefits, including FMLA spousal leave benefits, now apply equally to state-sanctioned same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.  

DOL Implementing Court’s Decision 

Secretary Perez affirmed the availability of spousal leave under the FMLA based on same-sex marriages.  He indicated that the DOL has removed references to DOMA from some of its guidance documents and will continue to take steps to implement the Court’s Windsor decision. 

When Do Employers Need to Recognize Same-Sex Marriages for FMLA Purposes? 

With some states legally recognizing same-sex marriages and others not, a key question for employers is which state’s law applies for FMLA spousal leave purposes?  According to the DOL’s 2009 FMLA regulations, “spouse” means a husband or wife as recognized by the state where the employee resides.  This means that the employer must determine if same-sex marriages are lawful in the state where the employee requesting FMLA leave lives, not where the employer is located or where the employee actually works.  At present, 13 states plus the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages as lawful:  California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.  

Some groups are urging the DOL to adopt a rule that would recognize FMLA rights based on the state where the marriage was celebrated, not the state of residency.  Although the DOL has not yet proposed any rule changes on this issue, we will keep an eye on it and will let you know if any changes to the marriage recognition rules are proposed. 

Update Your FMLA Policy for Same-Sex Spousal Leave 

If you have employees living in one or more states that recognize same-sex marriages (or in the District of Columbia), update your FMLA policy, forms and practices to incorporate spousal leave benefits for recognized same-sex marriages.  This includes FMLA leave for an employee who needs to care for a same-sex spouse with a serious health condition, leave because of a qualifying exigency due to the employee’s same-sex spouse being on “covered active duty” and FMLA military caregiver leave for an employee who needs to care for a same-sex spouse who is a “covered servicemember” or “covered veteran.”  Be sure to look at the state where the employee resides when determining whether same-sex marriage is deemed lawful and recognized for FMLA purposes.  If you use an FMLA tracking mechanism, make sure the system properly tracks for same-sex spousal leave.  As always, train your managers, supervisors and human resource professionals on this change in FMLA benefit coverage.


Disclaimer: This article is designed to provide general information on pertinent legal topics. The statements made are provided for educational purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and are not intended to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Holland & Hart LLP. If you have specific questions as to the application of the law to your activities, you should seek the advice of your legal counsel.


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