Category Archives: Wyoming

April 19, 2017

Retroactive Leniency Is Not A Reasonable Accommodation

By Brad Cave

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

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

Last Chance Agreement

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

Terminated For Hanging Up On Customers

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

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

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

ADA and FMLA Claims

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

Employer Need Not Excuse Or Overlook Misconduct 

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

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

Decision-Maker’s Honest Belief In Termination Reasons

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

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

FMLA Retaliation Claim Also Fails

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

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

Key Lessons

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

April 6, 2017

Seventh Circuit: Title VII Prohibits Sexual-Orientation Discrimination

By Dustin Berger

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

Title VII Prohibits Discrimination Because of Sex

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

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

Lesbian Professor Claimed Discrimination Based on Her Sexual Orientation

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

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

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

Ultimate Case of Sex Stereotyping

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

Associational Discrimination

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

What This Ruling Means For Employers

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

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

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

April 3, 2017

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

By Mark Wiletsky

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

EEOC Subpoena Sought “Pedigree Information”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court Decides Deferential Appellate Review Applies

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

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

March 21, 2017

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

By Steve Gutierrez

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

NLRB General Counsel Appointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solomon’s Actions “Voidable”

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

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

March 7, 2017

New Immigration Executive Order Scales Back Earlier Travel Restrictions

By Roger Tsai

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

Ninety-day Travel Restrictions

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

Iraq No Longer Subject To Travel Restrictions

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

Exceptions for Valid Visa Holders and Lawful Permanent Residents

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

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

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

Visa Interview Waiver Program Immediately Suspended

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

Refugee Program On Hold For 120 Days

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

March 16, 2017 Effective Date

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

What Employers Need To Consider

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

March 2, 2017

Remove That Liability Waiver From Your FCRA Disclosure Form

By Mark Wiletsky

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

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

FCRA Refresher

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

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

FCRA Disclosure Must Consist “Solely” of Disclosure

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

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

Court Nixes Liability Waiver As Willful FCRA Violation

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 27, 2017

Union Organizing At Boeing, Yale University, and Elsewhere Show Need For Swift Response

By Steve Gutierrez

Union organizing campaigns have been in the news a great deal lately. Graduate students at Yale University voted this week in favor of unionizing. But Boeing workers at its South Carolina factory recently rejected representation by the International Association of Machinists, after a long and bitter organizing campaign. What makes the difference between a “yes” or “no” vote? The key lies in understanding current organizing tactics and preparing a timely, effective response.

Boeing Defeats Union Vote In South Carolina

According to news reports, 74 percent of over 2,800 workers at Boeing’s South Carolina factory voted against the union. The election was significant because it is believed that Boeing opened its Dreamliner assembly line in South Carolina at least in part to escape the strong union that represents Boeing’s workforce in its home state of Washington. South Carolina is one of the least unionized states in the country and Boeing mounted a strong opposition to the union campaign there.

Boeing’s South Carolina production and maintenance workers sought more consistent work instructions, fairer evaluations, and higher wages and benefits, according to news reports. In opposition, Boeing is described as emphasizing that the union had earlier opposed expansion of the South Carolina factory and that the union would only come between workers and management.  Reports also describe a series of edgy opposition ads ran by a group closely tied to the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, to which Boeing belongs, including one that showed a machinist as a casino boss who pushed workers to gamble away their future. The strong opposition campaign appears to played a significant role in the rejection of the union in the recent vote.

Yale University Grad Assistants Favor Union 

In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate student employees, such as teaching and research assistants, on private campuses are entitled to form a union and collectively bargain.  (See our post on that ruling here.) That ruling overturned long-standing Board precedent against treating graduate assistants as employees who are entitled to the rights and protections of the National Labor Relations Act. In the short time since last summer’s ruling, at least three campuses have seen graduate students form unions, with Yale University as the latest.

News reports cite numerous motivations behind the teaching assistant’s push for a union, including funding security, mental health care, affordable child care, and equitable pay. Yale, which had expressed its opposition to the 2016 NLRB ruling, warned graduate students that a union could alter their relationship with faculty members and limit their individual power as the union made decisions for everyone. The union’s margin of victory in this week’s election was reported to be slim.

Union organizers took a unique approach at Yale, seeking to have individual departments hold separate elections for their respective grad assistants. This tactic of using micro-units has proven successful in other organizing campaigns as the union need only convince a smaller number of employees in a particular department to vote “yes” rather than getting a majority of all employees holding the same position companywide to vote in favor of the union. In Yale’s case, the union Unite Here was successful in getting the graduate assistants in eight of nine departments to vote in favor of joining the union.

Understanding Union Organizing Tactics

The fast pace of union elections under the “quickie election” rules can significantly favor union organizers. As we’ve written in a prior post, the NLRB’s new election process, in effect since April 2015, accelerates the election process by shortening the time between a union’s filing of a representation petition and the holding of the vote. That time may be as short as two weeks, leaving management little time to ramp up an opposition campaign. Unions can seek to catch employers off guard or unprepared, using the quick election process to win elections without an organized response from management. Read more >>

February 7, 2017

SEC Targets Severance Agreements That Impede Whistleblowers

By Mark Wiletsky and Brian Hoffman

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is cracking down on severance agreements that prohibit former employees from contacting regulators or accepting whistleblower awards under threat of losing their severance payments or other post-employment benefits. More and more, the SEC’s Enforcement Division has announced new cases filed against, and settlements made with, companies which restrict former employers from blowing the whistle through severance agreement clauses. Many of the scrutinized companies are not in the securities industry, and the problematic contract language is not as obvious as you may think.

Dodd-Frank Act Established Whistleblower Programs

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act established whistleblower programs for the SEC as well as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Under the SEC’s whistleblower program, eligible whistleblowers who provide unique and useful information about securities-law violations to the SEC can collect significant awards of 10-to-30 percent of a penalty that exceeds $1 million.

Essential to the program, however, are the anti-retaliation provisions, which prevent whistleblowers from suffering adverse actions as a result of their whistleblowing activities. In addition, an SEC rule, Rule 21F-17, prohibits any action that impedes an individual from communicating with the SEC about possible securities violations. Rule 21F(h)(1) of the Dodd-Frank Act prohibits employers from taking retaliatory actions against whistleblowers who make protected reports.

Award Waivers, Confidentiality, and Non-Disparagement Clauses

Severance agreements often contain boilerplate language, occasionally including clauses that restrict a former employee from disclosing any confidential company information and disparaging the company or its officers and managers. Agreements also sometimes require that a former employee agree to waive any awards or monetary recovery should he or she file a complaint with a governmental agency. These severance provisions are exactly the type of restrictive language that the SEC has been targeting.

In its first whistleblower protection case involving restrictive language, in 2015 the SEC charged a global technology and engineering firm with a violation of Rule 21F-17. The company had required witnesses involved in internal investigations to sign confidentiality agreements that stated that the employee could face discipline or termination if they discussed the matter with outside parties without the prior approval of the company’s legal department. Because the investigations could involve possible securities-law violations and the clause prohibited employees from reporting possible violations directly to the SEC, the SEC found that the restrictive language in the confidentiality agreements impeded whistleblowers. The company agreed to pay a $130,000 penalty to settle the charges and voluntarily amend its confidentiality statements to add language to inform employees that they may report possible violations to the SEC and other federal agencies without company approval or fear of retaliation.

Recent SEC Cases Targeting Severance Agreements 

Additional whistleblower severance agreement cases highlight other clauses targeted by the SEC. In mid-2016, the SEC charged a building products company with using severance agreements that required former employees to waive their rights to a monetary recovery if they filed a complaint with the SEC or another government agency. The clause stated that the departing employee was required to waive possible whistleblower awards or risk losing their severance payments and other post-employment benefits. The company did not admit liability, but agreed to settle with the SEC for a $265,000 penalty.

Also in mid-2016, the SEC charged a financial services company for using language in agreements that restricted employees’ ability to disclose information to government agencies. Problematic wording included restricting any disclosure of confidential information, except when disclosure is required by law, in response to a subpoena, or with the company’s permission. (See also our prior client alert on the above three cases.)

Read more >>

February 3, 2017

Wyoming Legislature Convenes And Employment Bills Are On Deck

By Brad Cave

The Wyoming Legislature convened its general session on January 10, 2017. A bunch of interesting employment-related measures have been filed for the Legislature’s consideration. Some make good sense; others not so much. Employers can follow the progress of these proposals through the Legislature’s website at legisweb.state.wy.us, and we will update you as the session progresses.

Unemployment and Workers Compensation

House Bill 71 would permit the Unemployment Insurance Division to establish an Internet-based communication system to transmit determinations, decisions or notices when the claimant or the employer agree to receive those documents through the system. The bill would establish rules for determining when documents are delivered using such a system and acknowledgement of delivery under the system. No action has been taken on this proposal.

House Bill 84 would authorize the Department to enter into installment payment agreements with employers who are delinquent on the payment of workers compensation premiums, lowers the interest rate on delinquencies to 1%, and gives the Department some discretion on whether to sue or shut down an employer who is delinquent in paying premiums. The House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee unanimously adopted a “do pass” recommendation for this bill.

Similarly, House Bill 85 authorizes the Department of Workforce Services to enter into agreements with employers for the repayment of delinquent unemployment contributions of up to twelve months in duration. The bill would also reduce the interest rate for delinquent contributions from 2% to 1%. This bill has been referred to the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee for consideration, but no action has been taken by the committee.

Senate File 101 would exempt seasonal employment from unemployment benefits and premiums. The measure would define seasonal employment as employment limited to 20 weeks in any 12 month period, and exclude seasonal employment and wages earned from such employment from unemployment insurance purposes. This proposal has been referred to the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.

Wages 

In 2015, the Legislature changed Wyoming law to permit employers to make final wage payments to employees on the employer’s regular payroll schedule, regardless of the reason for termination. House Bill 92 amends that schedule to require employers to comply with any time specified under a collective bargaining agreement between the employer and its employees’ union. The bill passed the House without opposition, and is presently awaiting action by the Senate.

House Bill 140 is a perennial offering to raise the minimum wage. The amount of the proposed increase has changed from year to year. This year’s bill calls for a minimum wage of not less than $9.50 per hour, and a training wage for the first six month’s of employment of $7.50. Under the measure, tipped employees would receive a minimum wage of $5.50, not considering tips, and at least $9.50 per hour with tips. Tipped employees would also be able to file a claim for three times the amount the employer owes if the employer fails to make up the difference between the general minimum wage and the tipped employee minimum wage, when the employee’s tips do not cover the difference. The bill is awaiting action by the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.

House Bill 209 would require the Department of Workforce Services to update a 2002 study about gender wage disparity in Wyoming. The bill would require the study to analyze disparities on the basis of county and occupation, and to opine on the causes, impacts, solutions and benefits of resolving any such disparities. This proposal has been introduced, but no action or committee assignment has been made.

Veterans, Military Service and Military and Veterans Spouses

The Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee proposed a trio of veterans’ preference measures:

Senate File 53 would require that all public employers, and all private employers hiring for public works projects, give veterans a “preference prior to the interview process.” The measure would amend current law to direct that, if a public employer uses a numerical scoring system for applicants, veterans shall be granted a 5% advantage over any nonveteran, and, if the veteran has a service-connected disability, a 10% advantage. If no scoring system is used, a qualified veteran shall be given preference over any equally qualified nonveteran candidate.  This file would define veteran as any honorably discharged service member or a serving spouse of any deceased service member. After several attempts to amend the proposal, it passed the Senate by a large majority and is awaiting action in the House.

Senate File 54 would create a preference for the hiring of military spouses by all public entities and private employers with contracts on public works projects. A military-spouse applicant would be preferred for appointment if the applicant possesses the business capacity, competency, education or other qualifications for the position. If a public entity uses a numeric scoring system, the military spouse shall be allowed a 5% advantage over any competitor-applicant. If no numeric scoring system is used for a position with a public entity, the military spouse shall be given preference over equally qualified candidates. This file passed the Senate by a narrow five-vote majority, and is waiting for consideration by the House.

Senate File 55 would have amended the Wyoming Fair Employment Practices Act to prohibit discrimination against an applicant or employee because that person is a military spouse. A military spouse is an individual married to an active uniformed military member or member of the national guard or any guard reserve or auxiliary component. The Senate defeated this measure by a vote of 11 to 19.

Finally, House Bill 101 would permit, but not require, school district boards to create a hiring preference for veterans and surviving spouses of veterans. This bill would also clarify that the current law requiring veterans’ preferences does not apply to school districts. The House Education Committee gave this bill a unanimous “do pass” recommendation, and it is working its way through the process on the House floor.

Franchisor Protection 

Senate File 94 appears to be a reaction to the National Labor Relations Board’s efforts to treat the employees of franchisees, most notably the employees of various McDonald’s franchisees around the country, as employees of the franchiser corporation. The measure declares that franchisee employees could not be deemed an employee of a franchiser for any purpose under Title 27 of the Wyoming Statutes, which would include unemployment, workers’ compensation, fair employment, and the wage payment statutes. The measure has been assigned to the Senate Corporations Committee for consideration.

Waiver of Governmental Immunity for Health Care Whistleblower Claims 

Wyoming law currently prohibits discrimination against employees of licensed health care providers who report any violation of state or federal law to the Wyoming Department of Health. However, most hospitals in Wyoming are operated by governmental entities which are immune from liability under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act for any claim unless the claim is specified as an exception under that Act. House Bill 142 would amend the Governmental Claims Act to create an exception for discrimination against whistleblowers who are employed by public hospitals. This bill passed the House with a strong majority, and is waiting for action in the Senate.

Early Retirement for State Employees 

Senate File 95 would create a one-time early retirement program  for eligible state employees. The program will apply only to employees who elect to accept the benefit between April 1 through June 30, 2017. Eligible employees would be defined as those between 52 and 55 years of age, with 15 to 18 years of services, such that their age and years of service total at least 70. Eligible employees who accept the offer will receive an enhanced monthly retirement benefit until age 65, and other insurance related benefits. The measure would also restrict the ability of the various state agencies to fill any position vacated by an eligible employee who accepts the early retirement benefit. The measure is currently waiting for consideration by the Senate Revenue Committee. 

Resistance to Federal Workplace Safety Regulations 

House Bill 70 is an effort to resist efforts by the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to regulate in certain areas. The measure contends that OSHA has “expanded its regulations of highly hazardous chemicals on questionable authority.” This measure would authorize the Governor and the Attorney General to defend the interests of Wyoming citizens against regulations proposed by federal OSHA in areas of “questionable” federal authority. The measure does not specify those areas. The House passed this bill with a strong majority, and it is waiting for consideration in the Senate.

Civil Rights

House Bill 135 would create the Government Nondiscrimination Act, which would prohibit any government employer from discriminating against any person because the person believes or acts based on a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is a union of one man and one woman, and that gender is a person’s biological sex as determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth. The measure would have far-reaching implications in various areas of state law beyond employment protections, and would also prohibit any employment-related actions for those prohibited reasons. The measure would create a legal claim for violation of the statute, with broad remedies including compensatory damages, and would eliminate the immunity of governmental entities for violations of the proposed statute. This bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Joint Resolution SJ0001 has been proposed to create an individual right of privacy in the Wyoming Constitution. The amendment would read that the “right of individual privacy . . . shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest.” The resolution does not explain how the amendment would apply to the relationship between governmental entities and their employees with respect to internal investigations, drug testing or other aspects of the public employment relationship. This resolution was received for introduction in the Senate, but no action has been taken on it since introduction.

Joint Resolution SJ004 has been proposed before the Senate to put a resolution before Wyoming voters to amend the Wyoming Constitution. The constitutional amendment would prohibit discrimination or preferences  in public employment, contracting, education and a variety of other public services and activities on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. The amendment would apply to all public entities. This resolution was received for introduction in the Senate, but no action has been taken on it since introduction.

Bottom Line 

We encourage Wyoming employers to keep tabs on these bills, and contact your Senator or Representative if these impact your organization or industry. The legislative session adjourns in early March, so additional measures may be introduced. We will continue to update you as the session continues over the next month.

February 1, 2017

Workplace Implications of the President’s Immigration Executive Order

6a013486823d73970c01b8d1be606f970c-120wiBy Roger Tsai

On January 27th, President Trump signed an Executive Order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” immediately suspending the entry of citizens from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Sudan, as well as the entry of new refugees. Employers with immigrant employees in the affected countries are encouraged to suspend work-related travel into the U.S. for the time being, as they may be unable to enter the U.S. Where possible, immigrant employees currently in the U.S. from the affected countries, even those with valid immigration documentation, such as H-1B visas, should avoid international travel for the next 90 days unless there is more clear indication of enforcement activities, a change to the Executive Order, or court-related clarity.

Who Does The Executive Order Impact?

  • Foreign nationals from the seven affected countries will likely be temporarily prevented from entry at U.S. airports and ports of entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection for a 90-day period. Similarly, U.S. Embassies abroad are expected to suspend the issuance of temporary nonimmigrant visas and immigrant visas to foreign nationals of the seven countries. The issuance of visas or entry into the U.S. of dual citizens of affected countries will also likely be temporarily suspended. To prevent unnecessary travel, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working with airlines to prevent the selected travelers from boarding international flights. Because the Executive Order also orders DHS to suspend “visas and other immigration benefits” to the citizens of the affected countries, immigrant employees in the U.S. seeking extensions of existing visas through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services may potentially be impacted.
  • U.S. permanent residents who are citizens of the affected countries will be allowed to enter the U.S. based on recent updates issued by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and DHS. Initially, the Executive Order only permitted the entry of U.S. permanent residents “when in the national interest” on a case-by-case basis. On January 29th, DHS clarified that lawful permanent resident status will be a dispositive factor in the case-by-case determinations, absent derogatory information indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare.
  • Newly admitted refugees from any country will be suspended for a 120-day period under the Executive Order. Current employees under refugee status should be permitted to travel internationally but may face additional scrutiny at Customs if they are from the seven affected countries. The entry of new Syrian refugees is indefinitely suspended.
  • Immigrants seeking renewal of their visas through the Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP). Previously, the VIWP allowed visitors and other visa holders to renew visas without a consular interview if the immigrant was applying for the same visa category within 12 months of the initial visa expiration. Applicants could simply drop off their application, passport and payment and obtain a renewed visa stamp without undergoing a visa interview. The Executive Order immediately suspends the VIWP and most nonimmigrant visa applicants will be required to attend an in-person interview to renew their visas. The VIWP is separate from the Visa Waiver Program which allows citizens of 38 countries to enter the U.S. as visitors for 90 days without a visa.

Over the course of the next 30 to 120 days, the Department of State and DHS will provide reports to the President regarding the public-security concerns, and we will provide additional alerts as the policy evolves.