Category Archives: Idaho

January 8, 2018

Confidential Sexual Harassment Settlements No Longer Tax Deductible

Steven Gutierrez

By Steve Gutierrez

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

Deductibility Hinges On Confidentiality of Settlement

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

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

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

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

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

Deductibility of Victim’s Attorney’s Fees

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

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

Get Advice Before Settling

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

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

January 2, 2018

Sexual Harassment – Employers Should Act Now

By Mark Wiletsky

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

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

Have a Strong Anti-Harassment Policy

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

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

Train Both Managers and Employees

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

Encourage Reporting of Inappropriate Conduct 

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

Investigate Every Complaint

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

Take Prompt, Appropriate Action

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

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

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

October 12, 2017

Top Five Ongoing Challenges For Collective Bargaining and Organizing

By Steve Gutierrez

Most expect that the White House and federal agencies will take a more business-friendly approach than in recent years. Employers hope that will mean they can now look forward to a potential rollback of regulations and enforcement efforts that have stymied their business objectives. Yet when it comes to responding to union organizing campaigns and negotiating collective bargaining agreements, employers still face wide-ranging challenges. Here is my list of the top five ongoing challenges. 

1. Affordable Care Act (ACA) Cadillac Tax 

Many unions, such as the Teamsters, prioritize and bargain extensively over top quality, employer-paid health insurance. They often use it as a selling point to their members. Yet, the ACA’s 40 percent excise tax on workers with comprehensive insurance plans (the so-called “Cadillac tax”), set to be implemented in 2020, is seen by the unions as an affront to their hard-fought bargaining to obtain high quality health care for their membership.

In fact, reports show that unions, including the Teamsters, have actively lobbied members of Congress for a repeal of the Cadillac tax. Because health care reform has not yet passed, it may be unlikely that relief from the Cadillac tax is forthcoming anytime soon.

This opens the door for alternate bargaining tactics over health care plans and benefits. Economics can be based on the ultimate cost to the employees/members, when factoring in the tax. This issue remains a challenge for both employers and the union and can change the overall approach to structuring the economic package during contract negotiations. 

2.  Micro-units 

In 2011, the NLRB issued its Specialty Healthcare decision permitting unions to establish bargaining units that include only a small fraction of a workforce. For example, in 2014, the Board certified a micro-unit of cosmetic and fragrance salespersons working at a Macy’s department store rather than requiring all employees at the store (or even all salespersons at the store) to make up the bargaining unit. The Board authorized the micro-unit by finding that the cosmetics and fragrances salespersons were a readily identifiable group and shared a community of interest. The Board also found that other Macy’s employees did not share an overwhelming community of interest with the cosmetics and fragrances employees, and prior NLRB cases involving the retail industry did not require a wall-to-wall unit.

These micro-units can make union organizing easier as they do not require a majority of the historical “wall-to-wall” bargaining units to vote in favor of the union. For example, a unit of only nine employees needs just five to vote “yes” and the union has its foot in the door with that employer. And organizing on that micro level can more easily go unnoticed by employers. Micro-units can also result in an employer having to negotiate with multiple unions affecting small segments of its workforce, and the headaches involved with administering varying contracts.

Numerous efforts are underway in the current administration to do away with micro-units. Current NLRB Chairman Phillip Miscimarra disagrees with the Specialty Healthcare standard for determining an appropriate bargaining unit, raising chances that the Board will abandon the approval of micro-bargaining units. However, Miscimarra has announced that he will leave the Board when his term expires in December 2017. Despite his impending departure, it is possible that a majority-Republican Board will reverse course on micro-units.

In addition, this past Spring, Senate Republicans introduced (again) the Representation Fairness Restoration Act (S. 801) which would do away with micro-units. That bill has been assigned to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee where it is one of 250 bills currently being considered by the committee.

Until the law or Board precedent is changed, micro-units remain a challenge for employers. But because a more employer-friendly Board might rule against a micro-unit, it becomes vastly important to challenge proposed bargaining units and any potential outlier unit members. Increased pressure on the Board on this issue should be a continued focus. 

3.  Transparency with Employees/Members 

Unions are becoming quite savvy in communicating with their members and potential members. Union leaders are increasingly focusing on being more transparent with their members during the bargaining process. They continue to build strong communications networks centered on social media and other online platforms, with development of mobile apps and company-specific websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts.

To stay ahead of and counter union communications, employers facing a union organizing campaign or in the midst of negotiating a contract should institute and invest in more robust communication strategies with their employees as well. Social media and other online communications boards are essential in getting the company’s message out, especially to millennials and other employee demographics who will seek their information from such sources. But, be aware that in late 2014, the NLRB ruled that employees may presumptively use a company’s email system for statutorily protected communications as long as it takes place during nonworking time and does not interfere with productivity. That Board decision, Purple Communications, is on appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals but remains a challenge for employers until such time it is reversed or overturned.

4.  New Technology in the Workplace 

As more technology comes into the workplace and robots threaten to replace workers, collective bargaining will likely face these issues head on. Just as outsourcing used to be (and in many cases, still is) a sore spot for unions, workplace automation is a similar threat to jobs and future expansion.

One example involves the Teamsters who recognize that autonomous driving vehicles are becoming a reality. The Teamsters are urging lawmakers to prioritize workers and safety when crafting legislation and rules regarding autonomous vehicles. Their concerns likely spill over into their contract negotiations as well.

As workplace technology accelerates, discussions of the use of such technology will likely become key in any bargaining where robots and automation are a possibility. Anticipating that topic, and the potential impact on workers, opens the door for employers to bargain for potential gains and/or trade-offs in their favor when the union opposes or seeks to limit autonomous technology.

5.  Favorability of Unions on the Rise 

According to a January 2017 Union Favorability Survey by the Pew Research Center (PRC), 60 percent of respondents viewed labor unions favorably while only 35 percent viewed unions unfavorably. This is the highest union favorability rating compiled by the PRC since March of 2001 and only the second rating at or above 60 percent since 1985.

Employers should be aware of this rising trend, especially when communicating with employees during an organizing or bargaining campaign. Opposing and criticizing unions too strongly could backfire so communications and strategies should be formulated to focus on issues, rather than the institution of unions and union membership itself.

Responding to organizing campaigns and preparing for collective bargaining is always a challenge but thinking ahead about these top five issues, and investing in some preventative training and education for managers, can help you manage the process and achieve a favorable outcome.

October 5, 2017

ADA Does Not Mandate Multi-month Leave of Absence As Accommodation, Says Seventh Circuit Court

By Mark Wiletsky

Rarely do we receive definitive guidance on reasonable accommodations. But the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals came very close to providing that when it recently ruled that a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Back Condition Leads to FMLA Leave

In the recent Seventh Circuit case, Raymond Severson had long suffered from back myelopathy, a condition that caused degenerative changes in his back, neck, and spinal cord and impaired his functioning. Although he usually was able to perform his duties at Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., a fabricator of retail display fixtures, at times Severson experienced flare-ups that made it difficult for him to walk, bend, lift, sit, stand, or work.

Over the course of seven years of employment with Heartland Woodcraft, Severson rose from supervisor to shop superintendent and then to operations manager. The company, however, found that he performed poorly in the operations manager position and on June 5, 2013, notified Severson that it had demoted him to a second-shift lead position, which included performing manual labor in the production area.

That same morning, Severson had wrenched his back at home and he was visibly uncomfortable. He left work early and requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). He was granted FMLA leave, and his doctor provided certificates indicated that he had multiple herniated and bulging discs in his back which would make him unable to work until further notice.

Unable To Return To Work Following FMLA Leave

While out on FMLA leave, Severson’s doctor treated him with steroid injections, but they did not improve his condition. Severson scheduled disc decompression surgery for August 27, 2013, the same day that his 12 weeks of FMLA leave would expire.

About two weeks before his surgery, Severson requested an extension of his medical leave, explaining that typical recovery time for his surgery would be at least two months. The company contacted him on August 26, the day before his scheduled surgery, and informed him that his employment with Heartland would terminate on August 27 when his FMLA leave expired.  He was told he could reapply for employment after he was medically cleared to work.

On August 27, Severson had his scheduled surgery, and on October 17, his doctor gave him a partial clearance to return to work with a 20-pound lifting restriction. On December 5, Severson’s doctor released him to work without restriction.

Leave As A Reasonable Accommodation

Severson sued the company for an ADA violation alleging that it failed to accommodate his physical disability by refusing to provide a three-month leave of absence following expiration of his FMLA leave. The federal court in Wisconsin rejected the claim as a matter of law, entering summary judgment in favor of Heartland Woodcraft, and Severson appealed.

The Seventh Circuit (whose decisions are binding on federal courts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana) affirmed judgment in favor of the employer. The Court was very clear in ruling that a long-term medical leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Judge Sykes, writing for the three-judge panel, stated, “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” The Court stated that a reasonable accommodation is intended to make it possible for the employee to perform his or her job. But a medical leave that lasts multiple months does not allow the employee to work and that inability to work removes the person from the class of “qualified individuals” protected by the ADA.

The Court stated that brief periods of time off may be an appropriate accommodation in some circumstances. For example, the Court noted that intermittent time off or a short leave of absence may be appropriate for someone with arthritis or lupus when brief periods of inflammation make it too painful for the individual to work. But the Court ruled that a multi-month leave of absence “is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.” Read more >>

September 25, 2017

Reminder: New I-9 Form Now Mandatory

By Roger Tsai

Beginning September 18, 2017, U.S. employers are required to use the revised Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification form. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released the revised form on July 17, 2017 but permitted employers to continue to use the prior version until last week. The new form has an expiration date of 08/31/2019 and may be accessed from the USCIS website here.

Form I-9 Revisions 

Most of the changes in the revised I-9 Form relate to the List of Acceptable Documents that show an individual’s identity and employment authorization. In particular, the changes include:

  • Form FS-240, Consular Report of Birth Abroad, was added to List C
  • All the certifications of report of birth issued by the State Department (e.g., Forms FS-545, DS-1350, and FS-240) were combined into selection C#2 in List C
  • All List C documents (except the Social Security Card) are renumbered

Other changes include removing the phrase “the end of” from the requirement that newly hired employees complete and sign Section 1 of the Form no later “than the first day of employment.” Another revision to the instructions is the renaming of the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment practices to its new name, Immigrant and Employee Rights Section. USCIS updated its Handbook for Employers: Guidance for Completing Form I-9 (M-274) to reflect the changes.

Check That New Forms Are Being Used

Employers need to ensure that all new employees hired on or after September 18th have completed the revised Form I-9. If you allow individual supervisors or managers to coordinate completion of I-9 forms for new hires, be sure to alert them to the new form immediately. If you use a third-party I-9 service provider, check that it has updated its service to the new forms. Civil penalties for I-9 non-compliance can range between $216 and $2,156 per worker, even for a first violation.

August 31, 2017

Court Invalidates Overtime Rule That Increased Exempt Salary Levels

By Mark Wiletsky 

The Department of Labor (DOL) exceeded its authority when it doubled the minimum salary levels for exempt executive, professional, and administrative employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), ruled federal judge Amos Mazzant of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas today. Granting summary judgment in favor of the states and business plaintiffs who challenged the new overtime rule last November, Judge Mazzant determined that the DOL’s new overtime rule “effectively eliminates a consideration of whether an employee performs ‘bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity’ duties.”

Exempt Duties Are Part Of The Analysis

Judge Mazzant wrote that although Congress delegated authority to the DOL to define and delimit the white-collar exemptions, Congress was clear when enacting the FLSA that the exemption determination needs to involve a consideration of an employee’s duties, rather than relying on salary alone. He stated that the Obama-era overtime rule that significantly increased the minimum salary levels would result in entire categories of previously exempt employees who perform “bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity” duties being denied exempt status simply because they didn’t meet the salary threshold. Consequently, the elimination of an analysis of duties for those who failed to meet the new high salary level was inconsistent with Congressional intent.

A Minimum Salary Level Still Acceptable

When issuing a preliminary injunction last November, Judge Mazzant’s ruling raised the question as to whether any salary threshold could be used as part of the white-collar exemption tests. In his summary judgment order, Judge Mazzant appears to leave the salary-level part of the test stand, writing “[t]he use of a minimum salary level in this manner is consistent with Congress’s intent because salary serves as a defining characteristic when determining who, in good faith, performs actual executive, administrative, or professional capacity duties.” He notes that even though the plain meaning of Section 213(a)(1) does not provide for a salary requirement, the DOL has used a permissible minimum salary level as a test for identifying categories of employees Congress intended to exempt. Citing to a report on the proposed regulations, Judge Mazzant seems to approve of setting that salary level at “somewhere near the lower end of the range of prevailing salaries for these employees.”

No Automatic Increase Mechanism

The ruling also strikes down the mechanism in the DOL’s overtime rule that provided for automatic updates to the exemption’s salary levels every three years. In a cursory paragraph, Judge Mazzant wrote that having found the rule unlawful, the automatic updating mechanism was similarly unlawful.

Back To Square One

Now that the existing, never-implemented rule has been invalidated, the DOL is starting over with revising and updating the overtime exemption rule. The DOL recently published a request for information seeking public input on what the new salary levels should be, how updates should be made, whether duties tests should be changed, and other issues affecting the white-collar exemptions. We will have to see what new proposals the DOL puts out in the months to come. But in the meantime, employers can abandon plans to address the doubled salary thresholds under the Final Rule.

On Another Note, No Pay Data To Be Collected With EEO-1 Reports

In another development, on August 29, 2017, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to immediately stay the requirement that certain employers provide pay data as part of a new EEO-1 report. The controversial pay-data rule would have required companies with 100 or more employees (and federal contractors with 50 or more employees), to submit the wage and hour information for employees according to race, gender, and ethnicity, with the information being used by the EEOC to analyze pay discrepancies and identify possible Equal Pay Act violations. Because of the stay, covered employers should use the previous EEO-1 form, which still collects data on employee race, ethnicity, and gender by occupational categories. Despite the reprieve for employers on the pay-data rule, EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic states that her agency remains committed to strongly enforcing federal equal pay laws.

If you have any questions about these new developments, be sure to reach out to the employment counsel with whom you typically work.

June 7, 2017

DOL Withdraws Obama-Era Interpretations On Independent Contractors and Joint Employment

By Brad Cave

On June 7, 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced that it was withdrawing two informal guidances, namely a 2015 administrator interpretation on independent contractors and a 2016 administrator interpretation on joint employment, effective immediately. The DOL’s short announcement states that the removal of the administrator interpretations does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), and that the DOL “will continue to fully and fairly enforce all laws within its jurisdiction.” Here’s an attempt to read between the lines and determine the DOL’s position on these two issues.

Withdrawal of Independent Contractor Interpretation

When we wrote about the July 15, 2015 independent contractor interpretation here, we noted that then-Wage and Hour Division Administrator David Weil stressed that most workers meet the criteria to be deemed employees under the FLSA, and therefore, should not be treated as independent contractors. Although noting that multiple factors are used to determine independent contractor status, former administrator Weil stated that the DOL would focus primarily on whether the worker runs his or her own independent business or if instead, the worker is economically dependent on the employer.

Withdrawal of the 2015 interpretation guidance does not change the fact that to “employ” is broadly defined in the FLSA as “to suffer or permit to work” and consequently, most individuals hired to perform work fall within that definition as an employee. In addition, the long-standing  multi-factor “economic realities” test used by courts to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor will continue to apply.

That said, the withdrawal of the 2015 administrator interpretation may be a signal that the DOL will no longer focus on misclassifications of independent contractors with the same fervor as it previously did. A more business-friendly DOL may choose to rely on certain factors, such as an independent contractor agreement setting forth the business relationship and the comparative degree of control over the work exerted by the two parties, over those factors that were highlighted in former administrator Weil’s interpretation, such as whether the worker runs his or her own independent business. The distinction between employees and independent contractors remains, but query whether this DOL, under the direction of new Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, will change the balance in determining independent contractor status.

Joint Employment Interpretation Withdrawn 

When the DOL issued its administrator interpretation on joint employer status in February 2016, we wrote here that the DOL made it clear that the agency planned to examine dual employer relationships very closely, with an apparent intent to find joint employer status in more circumstances under both the FLSA and the MSPA. By withdrawing that interpretation, the DOL may be suggesting a contraction of its efforts to find joint employer status. If that is the case, employers who utilize workers employed by a staffing agency or other workers provided by a third-party may face less scrutiny (and potentially, less liability) for wage and hour violations as a potential joint employer. In addition, companies that use the same workers across different subsidiaries or among other legally distinct entities may see a relaxation of the DOL’s emphasis on joint employer status.

The Tea Leaves Say . . .

Employers should stay vigilant about ensuring that workers they treat as independent contractors meet the multi-factor tests for independent contractor status. Similarly, organizations that could be subject to the joint employer analysis should examine their status under the applicable tests and are urged to review their third-party staffing arrangements to ensure compliance with wage and hour (and other DOL-enforced) laws. But, with the withdrawal of some of the more proactive enforcement approaches of the past administration, the DOL may be signaling its more business-friendly stance. Perhaps the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will be next to announce a less aggressive view towards finding joint employer status and a retraction of other arguably expansive positions taken in past years. We’ll keep you informed as new developments arise.

May 3, 2017

Is Comp Time Coming To The Private Sector?

By Mark Wiletsky

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

Eligibility For Comp Time

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

Employee Agreement For Comp Time

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

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

Limits On And Pay-Out Of Accrued Comp Time

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

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

Employee Use of Comp Time

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

Will It Pass?

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

April 6, 2017

Seventh Circuit: Title VII Prohibits Sexual-Orientation Discrimination

By Dustin Berger

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

Title VII Prohibits Discrimination Because of Sex

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

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

Lesbian Professor Claimed Discrimination Based on Her Sexual Orientation

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

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

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

Ultimate Case of Sex Stereotyping

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

Associational Discrimination

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

What This Ruling Means For Employers

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

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

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

April 3, 2017

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

By Mark Wiletsky

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

EEOC Subpoena Sought “Pedigree Information”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court Decides Deferential Appellate Review Applies

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

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