Tag Archives: retaliation

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.

November 3, 2016

$4.25M Age Discrimination and Retaliation Verdict Tough Pill For Abbott Laboratories To Swallow

By Steve GutierrezGutierrez_Steven

Four-and-a-quarter million dollars. That is what a federal jury recently awarded an ongoing employee at Abbott Laboratories for her age discrimination and retaliation claims. What caused the jury to award such a large amount in damages? Here is a look at the facts, followed by tips on how to avoid such liability when dealing with older employees.

All Seems Fine—Until Employee Hits Her Fifties

Luz Gonzalez-Bermudez (Gonzalez) has worked for Abbott since 1984, beginning her career as a pharmaceutical representative followed by promotions that ultimately made her the HCP national sales manager. In that role, Gonzalez was classified in Abbott’s compensation system as a Level 18 position, warranting a six-figure salary, an annual incentive bonus, stock options, and a company car.

But, eighteen months after her promotion to the HCP national sales manager, when Gonzalez was about 51 years old, her position was eliminated and she was demoted to a marketing manager position. Her new job was a Level 17 position, but Abbott allowed her to keep her Level 18 compensation and benefits for up to two years.

In the marketing manager position, Gonzalez reported to Kim Perez, the Director of Marketing (and later, the General Manager). Perez evaluated Gonzalez’s performance as a marketing manager negatively. Gonzalez complained internally that Perez was creating a hostile work environment, due to repeatedly asking her about outstanding work, sending a lot of emails following up on pending matters, and a lack of communication about things Gonzalez needed to know to do her job.

When Gonzalez’s two years of Level 18 compensation was up, Perez and the Human Resources Director told her that she had been assigned a Product Manager position, which was a Level 15 classification. At that level, Gonzalez took a pay cut, lowered bonus, loss of stock options, and lowered company car benefits.

Employee Lawyers Up 

About six months later, Gonzalez’s attorneys sent a letter on her behalf to Perez and others at Abbott, notifying them that they had been retained to represent her in any age discrimination claims that Gonzalez may have against them. Despite the letter, Abbott did not conduct an investigation into any possible claims. Shortly thereafter, Gonzalez filed an administrative charge with the Antidiscrimination Unit of the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources alleging age discrimination and retaliation. Read more >>

September 6, 2016

Tips For Avoiding Retaliation Claims Under EEOC’s New Guidance

Bryan_Benard of Holland & HartBy Bryan Benard

In recent years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has received more retaliation charges than any other type of discrimination claim. Last year, almost 45 percent of EEOC charges included an allegation of retaliation – yes, almost half!

Because of the alarming frequency of charges and the need for employees to report discrimination without fear of reprisal, the EEOC recently issued a new enforcement guidance on retaliation that replaces and updates its 1998 compliance manual on the subject. Even though the EEOC’s position is not necessarily the final word on these issues, as courts often disagree with the EEOC’s interpretation of federal discrimination laws, employers should know how EEOC  staff, including its investigators and litigators, will approach retaliation charges. Here is a look at the new guidance with tips on how to avoid becoming another retaliation charge statistic.

Overview of Retaliation and Protected Activities

The federal discrimination laws enforced by the EEOC, such as Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and others, prohibit employers from taking adverse action against an employee or applicant because the individual engaged in “protected activity.” Adverse actions that can be seen as retaliatory by the EEOC include not just discipline or discharge, but also transferring the employee to a less desirable position or shift, giving a negative or lower performance evaluation, increasing scrutiny, or making the person’s work more difficult.

“Protected activity” falls into two categories: participation and opposition. Participation activity is when an individual “participates” in an EEO process, which can include filing a charge, being involved in an investigation, or testifying or serving as a witness in a proceeding or hearing. Opposition activity is when an individual complains, questions, or otherwise opposes any discriminatory practice. Employees have the right to engage in both types of protected activity without being subject to retaliation from their employer.

Harassment As Retaliation

According to the EEOC, harassing conduct can be seen as retaliation, even if it does not rise to the level of being severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of employment. The agency states that harassment can constitute actionable retaliation so long as the conduct is sufficiently material to deter protected activity in the given context.

Evidence That May Support a Retaliation Finding

To determine whether there is a causal connection between a materially adverse action and the individual’s protected activity, the EEOC will consider different types of relevant evidence, alone or in combination. Some of the facts that may lead to a retaliation finding include:

  • Suspicious timing, especially when the adverse action occurs shortly after the individual engaged in protected activity;
  • Inconsistent or shifting explanations, such as where the employer changes its stated reasons for taking the adverse action;
  • Treating similarly situated employees more favorably than the individual who engaged in protected activity;
  • Statements or other evidence that suggest the employer’s justification for taking the adverse action is not believable, was pre-determined, or is hiding a retaliatory reason.

Read more >>

May 11, 2016

Colorado Pregnancy Accommodation Bill Passes

By Micah Dawson

The Colorado legislature passed House Bill 16-1438 requiring Colorado employers to engage in an interactive process to assess potential reasonable accommodations for applicants and employees for conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. The bill, expected to be signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper, will ensure that employers engage in the interactive process, provide reasonable accommodations to eligible individuals, prohibit retaliation against employees and applicants that request or use a pregnancy-related accommodation, and provide notice of employee rights under this law. Once signed by the Governor, the new law will go into effect on August 10, 2016.

Pregnancy-Related Workplace Accommodations

This law will add a new section, section 24-34-402.3, to the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, making it an unfair employment practice for you to fail to provide a reasonable accommodation for an applicant for employment, or an employee, for health conditions related to pregnancy or physical recovery from childbirth, absent an undue hardship on your business. You also may not deny employment opportunities based on the need to make a pregnancy-related reasonable accommodation.

Interactive Accommodation Process 

You will need to engage in a “timely, good-faith, and interactive process” with the applicant or employee to determine effective reasonable accommodations.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include but are not limited to:

  • more frequent or longer breaks
  • more frequent restroom, food and water breaks
  • obtaining or modifying equipment or seating
  • temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position, if available (with return to the current position after pregnancy)
  • light duty, if available
  • job restructuring
  • limiting lifting
  • assistance with manual labor, or
  • modified work schedules.

In engaging in this process, you need to be sure to document your good-faith efforts to identify and make reasonable accommodations because doing so can negate punitive damages if an individual sues you for failure to make a pregnancy-related accommodation. You may require that the employee or applicant provide a note from her health care provider stating the need for a reasonable accommodation.

No Forced Accommodations or Leave 

Under the new law, you may not force an applicant or employee affected by pregnancy-related conditions to accept an accommodation that she has not requested, or that is unnecessary to perform the essential function of her job. Similarly, you may not require a pregnant employee to take leave if there is another reasonable accommodation that may be provided. As stated in the legislative declaration for the bill, the intent is to keep pregnant women employed and generating income so forcing pregnant women to take time off during or after their pregnancy generally is not permitted.

Analyzing Undue Hardship Of Accommodations 

Reasonable accommodations may be denied if they impose an undue hardship on your business. That requires an analysis of the following factors in order to decide whether the accommodation would require significant difficulty or expense:

  • the nature and cost of the accommodation
  • the overall financial resources of the employer
  • the overall size of the employer’s business with respect to the number of employees and the number, type, and location of the available facilities, and
  • the accommodation’s effect on expenses and resources or its impact on the operations of the employer.

Broad Definition of “Adverse Action” in Retaliation Prohibition 

The new law prohibits you from taking adverse action against an employee who requests or uses a reasonable accommodation for a pregnancy-related condition. An adverse action is defined very broadly as “an action where a reasonable employee would have found the action materially adverse, such that it might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” This approach harkens to the NLRB’s use of a “chilling effect” on employee rights as a basis for unfair labor charges. By not limiting an adverse action to concrete actions, such as a termination, demotion, pay reduction, or similar actions, the broad definition opens the door to a wide range of employer responses that could be deemed retaliation.

Notifying Employees of Their Rights

If signed into law, you will have until December 8, 2016 (120 days from the effective date) to provide current employees with written notice of their rights under this provision. Thereafter, you also must provide written notice of the right to be free from discriminatory or unfair employment practices under this law to every new hire at the start of their employment. You also have to post the written notice in a conspicuous place at your business in an area accessible to employees.

What To Do Now 

With enactment almost certain, prepare now to comply with this new pregnancy accommodation requirement. A checklist of action items includes:

  • Review and update job descriptions to designate essential functions of each job.
  • Update your accommodation policies and handbook to include pregnancy-related accommodations and information on how employees may request such an accommodation.
  • Train your supervisors, managers, and human resources department on the new accommodation requirements and the anti-retaliation provision.
  • Prepare written notifications of employee rights to send to current employees no later than December 8, 2016.
  • Include the written notification of rights in your onboarding materials so that after December 8, 2016, all new hires receive the notice.
  • Post the written notification of rights in a conspicuous place accessible to employees, such as your lunch room bulletin boards, intranet, or wherever other required employment law posters are posted.

September 15, 2015

Wyoming Discrimination Charges: A Look at the Numbers

Cave_BBy Brad Cave 

Mark Twain is credited with saying that “facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.” The Wyoming Labor Standards Division and the EEOC both keep statistics of the types of discrimination charges the agencies receive from Wyoming employees. When it comes to discrimination charges, the allegations are almost always pliable, but the statistics show us some interesting things for employers to ponder.

Wyoming Labor Standards Charges 

The Wyoming Fair Employment Practices Act makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the basis of age, sex, race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, pregnancy or disability. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ Labor Standards Division is the state agency that processes and investigates most complaints of employment discrimination filed by Wyoming workers. 

In 2014, the Wyoming Labor Standards Division received a total of 203 discrimination charges. It processed 182 of those charges and deferred the remaining 21 charges to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) because they were either untimely under state law or contained allegations of Equal Pay Act violations. The Division reports the breakdown of 2014 charges by allegation as follows: 

Type

No. of Charges

Percentage of Total Charges

Retaliation

76

41.8%

Sex

55

31.2%

Disability

46

25.3%

Age

33

18.1%

National Origin

27

14.8%

Race

21

11.5%

Religion

  7

  3.8%

You math wizzes in the audience have already exclaimed that the percentages exceed 100%, and the author must be numerically challenged. But, many charges include allegations of multiple types of discrimination. Indeed, charges often include an allegation of discrimination on the basis of protected class, and an allegation of retaliation in response to complaints about the discrimination. As you can see, Wyoming had more retaliation charges than any other type of charge. That mirrors the nationwide statistics where retaliation charges lead the list of most-filed charges. Not far behind are sex discrimination charges, with disability charges as the third most-frequently filed. 

EEOC Charge Statistics for Wyoming Charges 

The EEOC also maintains charge statistics for each type of discrimination that is alleged under the federal discrimination laws that it enforces, and annually publishes those statistics on a state-by-state basis.The EEOC count includes charges under Title VII, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion and national origin, as well as charges under other federal discrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. 

The EEOC’s most recent data for fiscal year 2014 (Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014) shows that the federal discrimination charges for Wyoming received by that agency track the Labor Standards Division’s statistics, with retaliation charges leading the list. With a total of 69 discrimination charges filed with the EEOC by Wyoming workers in FY2014, here are the numbers by type:

Type

No. of Charges

Percentage of Total Charges

Retaliation

30

43.5%

Sex

29

42%

Disability

25

36.2%

Age

20

29%

Race

14

20.3%

National Origin

  6

  8.7%

Color

  4

  5.8%

Equal Pay Act

  3

  4.3%

Religion

  2

  2.9%

Wyoming employers received significantly more sex discrimination charges in 2014 than compared to 2013. The percentage of sex discrimination charges filed with the EEOC went up from 29.2% in FY 2013 to 42% in FY2014. Retaliation charges topped the list in both FY2013 and FY2014. The full list of EEOC charge receipts for Wyoming for the last five years may be viewed on the EEOC’s website at  http://www1.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/charges_by_state.cfm#centercol

Lessons Learned 

The charge statistics from the Wyoming Labor Standards Office and the EEOC reflect discrimination complaints filed by applicants and employees, not cases in which discrimination was determined to exist. Even so, the charge numbers for Wyoming suggest a number of action items for employers who want to avoid being included in next year’s statistics. 

First, retaliation gets a lot less attention from employers than it should, as these numbers show.  Whenever an employee complains about something at work that implicates a statutory right, like the right to be free from discrimination or harassment, or requests an accommodation or FMLA leave, the employee has engaged in protected activity. Most discrimination laws prohibit adverse actions because an employee has engaged in protected activity. And, it makes little difference whether the employee’s underlying complaint or request was valid – the employee is still protected against retaliation. 

Employers need a strong, stand-alone anti-retaliation policy, not just a couple of sentences at the end of the policy prohibiting discrimination. Employers also need to train supervisors and managers about the significance of employee complaints, and how the law protects employees. And careful consideration should be given to any adverse employment action for an employee who has opposed discrimination in the workplace, been interviewed as part of an investigation, or participated in a discrimination proceeding. 

Second, the prevalence of sex discrimination charges, which includes harassment charges, suggests that employers should review and update their discrimination and harassment policies, and continue periodic harassment prevention training. A strong harassment prevention policy, with understandable definitions and examples and multiple reporting options, is usually the best defense against a charge of sexual harassment. Of course, any observed or reported harassment must be investigated and any behavior which violates your policies must be stopped. 

Finally, adopt a policy that guides employees who wish to request an accommodation, and train supervisors how to recognize employee requests that could be interpreted as a request for accommodation. Once a request is made, follow a thorough interactive process to explore reasonable accommodations that do not place an undue burden on your organization but will allow the person to perform their job. Only when you are absolutely sure that no reasonable accommodation is available should you terminate a disabled employee. 

These action items will go a long way toward keeping you from becoming a statistic!

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April 20, 2015

You’ve Received a Discrimination Charge from NERC or the EEOC – Don’t Throw It in the Trash!

Lane_DBy Dora Lane 

When asked about a discrimination charge sent to them months ago, a client once answered “I did not know what to do with it, so I threw it in the trash.” Needless to say, that was a bad idea. Unfortunately, many employers do not understand their obligations when faced with a discrimination charge and that can backfire if the charge is not informally resolved. 

What is a discrimination charge? 

Ordinarily, before an employee can bring a harassment, discrimination, or retaliation lawsuit in court, the employee must “exhaust their administrative remedies.” In plain English, they have to file a complaint (called a “charge”) with one of the administrative agencies responsible for enforcement of the respective employment laws before they sue the employer in court. 

In Nevada, a charge may be filed with either the Nevada Equal Rights Commission (NERC) (state administrative agency) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (federal administrative agency). Because of a work-sharing agreement between the two agencies, a charge filed with NERC is also deemed filed with the EEOC (though the opposite is not true). A charge ordinarily includes the name of the employee who submitted it, a brief summary of the employee’s allegations, and certain applicable deadlines. Where the charge is filed matters because different requirements for responding to it apply. 

What are the differences between responding to a NERC charge versus an EEOC charge? 

An employer should respond to any discrimination charge, regardless of the agency in which it was filed, or risk an adverse determination based only on the employee’s evidence. However, there are differences in the type of information you must provide and the timing of your response, depending on which agency sends you the charge. 

EEOC charge notifications are usually accompanied by Requests for Documents/Information. These requests must be answered and submitted along with a position statement addressing the allegations in the charge. The requests are frequently quite sweeping, requiring a lot of time and attention. NERC does not usually include Requests for Documents/Information in its charge notification packets. Rather, such requests may be sent – on a case-by-case basis – as part of the investigation process. (Of course, the EEOC may also request additional information during the course of its investigation.) 

Another difference is the timing of submitting a position statement if the charge proceeds to mediation (called “Informal Settlement Conference” by NERC). If you receive a charge notification from NERC, the notification comes in a packet, which also usually contains an Election of Response form. That form lets you choose whether or not you wish to participate in an Informal Settlement Conference, which is automatically scheduled on a certain date. If you do not respond by the election deadline or you decline the conference, the charge is ordinarily placed into investigation. 

Even if you choose to participate in the Informal Settlement Conference before NERC, however, you still must submit a position statement approximately a week before the conference. A potential cost-saving measure is to provide a brief, summary position statement first, in anticipation that the matter will resolve at the Informal Settlement Conference, and reserve the right to supplement at a later date in the event it does not. 

By contrast, with EEOC charges proceeding to mediation, you are only required to submit a position statement if the case does not settle during mediation. That said, in some cases, it may be useful to give the mediator a brief factual background offering your company’s perspective prior to the mediation. 

What if I did not get notice that I can mediate or participate in an Informal Settlement Conference? 

If you receive a NERC charge notification without an Election of Response form, you might consider contacting NERC to ask for one. NERC schedules Informal Settlement Conferences as a matter of course, and it is highly unusual not to be invited to one. Sometimes lack of invitation has resulted from inadvertent administrative oversight so if you want to pursue early settlement, ask for a conference. 

If you receive an EEOC charge notification that does not allow for mediation, it may stem from various reasons, which may or may not be a cause for concern. For example, there might have been an unintentional failure to check the “Mediation” box. Or, it is possible that the complaining party was not interested in mediation. Or, in the worst case scenario, the charge was not eligible for mediation because it was characterized as a “Category A” charge. “Category A” charges involve matters considered priorities by the EEOC, allegations of widespread legal violations by the employer, or other matters where the EEOC has concluded that further investigation would probably result in a cause finding (i.e., determination against the employer). 

If you are interested in mediating an EEOC charge, consider contacting the EEOC to inquire whether mediation would be available, even if the mediation box is not checked, as the EEOC’s response may offer some information as to the basis for the initial mediation unavailability. And, while the EEOC would rarely admit that the charge is “Category A,” that information might enable you to prepare for the EEOC’s upcoming investigation. 

What should I do when I get the charge?  

First and foremost, you should immediately preserve all relevant documents and information, in both paper and electronic format. You should also suspend all automatic electronic deletion policies and direct your employees not to destroy anything related to the allegations in the charge. In some cases, it may be appropriate to make forensic images of computer hard drives to preserve the integrity of metadata and other electronic information. 

Second, if an internal investigation has not already been conducted, you should investigate the complaining party’s allegations and begin gathering relevant information to prepare for defending the charge. Sometimes that includes collecting employee statements which can later be used to support your response to the charge. 

Finally, take your obligation to provide a position statement seriously. Position statements should be prepared by – at a minimum – an experienced human resources professional. Better yet, contact your employment counsel. Position statements not only shape the administrative agencies’ investigations and conclusions, but they are also discoverable in litigation. So, even though employment disputes are not criminal in nature, it is wise to heed the Miranda warning that “anything you say will be used against you” in court. 

Bottom Line: Responsibilities Flow From Receipt of a Charge 

As tempting as it may be to ignore or dismiss an EEOC or NERC charge, resist the temptation and take steps to protect your organization from potential liability. Deadlines are triggered from the charge notification. Failure to preserve all relevant evidence can result in severe sanctions, including ruling against your organization on the ultimate discrimination, harassment, or retaliation issue. Failing to conduct an internal investigation can limit your ability to properly defend against the employee’s claims and to determine your possible liability. In short, no good can come from ignoring a charge. Instead, follow the steps outlined above to put you in the best position to handle the allegations and minimize liability to your organization.

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April 14, 2015

EEOC Fails to Show Telecommuting Would Be A Reasonable Accommodation

Wiletsky_MBy Mark Wiletsky 

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) “does not endow all disabled persons with a job—or job schedule—of their choosing,” according to the majority of judges on the full Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In an 8 to 5 decision, the Sixth Circuit Court ruled en banc that Ford Motor Company did not violate the ADA when it denied an employee’s request to telecommute up to four days per week in order to accommodate her irritable bowel syndrome. EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., No. 12-2484 (6th Cir. Apr. 10, 2015). 

“Good, Old-Fashioned Interpersonal Skills” Made In-Person Attendance Essential 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) argued that a resale buyer for Ford, Jane Harris, who had irritable bowel syndrome that made it difficult for her to be far from a restroom, should be allowed to work from home up to four days per week. The agency cited Ford’s telecommuting policy that allowed other workers, including some resale buyers, to telecommute as evidence that Harris’ telecommuting request was a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. 

The Court disagreed. It ruled that regular and predictable on-site attendance was an essential function of the resale-buyer position at Ford. Resale buyers needed to purchase raw steel from steel suppliers and then resell it to parts manufacturers to make parts used in Ford vehicles. Although some interactions could be done by email and telephone, the Court found that many required “good, old-fashioned interpersonal skills,” and resale buyers needed to be able to meet face to face with suppliers, parts manufacturers and Ford employees during core business hours. 

Importantly, the Court reiterated the general rule is that regular attendance at work is essential to most jobs, especially interactive ones. It pointed to past court opinions as well as to EEOC regulations that support the premise that regular and predictable on-site attendance is an essential job function. The Court even relied on that “sometimes-forgotten guide” – common sense, stating that non-lawyers (as well as judges in other appellate circuits) recognize that regular in-person attendance is an essential function, and a prerequisite to other essential functions, of most jobs. 

Other Buyers Telecommuted on a Predictable, Limited Basis 

But what about the fact that Ford had a telecommuting policy that allowed other employees, including resale buyers like Harris, to work from home? Wouldn’t that make telecommuting a reasonable accommodation for Harris? 

The Court said no, because she proposed to telecommute four days per week on a schedule of her choosing. The other resale buyers who telecommuted did so only one established day per week and they agreed in advance that they would come into work that day, if needed. They were also able to perform well and maintain productivity. Harris, on the other hand, wanted to be able to pick and choose which days she would telecommute, up to four days per week, without agreeing to come in those days, if necessary. The Court found that none of these other employees’ more predictable and more limited telecommuting schedules removed regular on-site attendance from the resale buyer’s job. 

As a result, the Court ruled that Harris’ proposed telecommuting accommodation unreasonable.

In addition, Ford had allowed Harris to telecommute on an as-needed basis on three separate occasions and her performance suffered. Other attempts to improve Harris’ attendance also failed. The Court found that Harris could not perform the essential functions of her job and was unable to establish regular and consistent work hours. Therefore, it ruled that she was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA. 

Technology Did Not Carry the Day 

The EEOC argued that advances in technology make on-site attendance less essential. The Court disagreed in this case, stating that there was no evidence presented that specific technology made personal interactions unnecessary for resale buyers. 

No Blind Deference to Employer’s Judgment 

The Court made a point of stating that its opinion did not open the door for courts to blindly accept as essential whatever an employer says is essential for a particular job. It emphasized that an employer’s words, policies and practices were all important in deciding whether a particular task or requirement is an essential job function. 

In Ford’s case, the evidence supported Ford’s judgment that regular and predictable in-person attendance was essential for resale buyers. The Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Ford. 

No Retaliation For Termination 

The Court also ruled that Ford did not retaliate against Harris when it fired her for poor performance just four months after she had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Key was Ford’s good documentation of Harris’ performance and interpersonal issues. She had been ranked in the bottom 10% of her peer group before she filed her charge. Documentation showed that she failed to update spreadsheets, complete her paperwork, schedule training sessions, price items correctly and finish her work on time. Despite the closeness in time of the firing to her charge filing, the Court ruled that the EEOC failed to present evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the real reason that Ford terminated Harris was unlawful retaliation instead of poor performance. 

Dissent: Either Physical Presence is Not Essential or Telecommuting is A Reasonable Accommodation 

Five judges on the Sixth Circuit dissented, believing that the EEOC had presented enough evidence to send the EEOC’s claims to a jury. Specifically, the dissent stated that the evidence was sufficient to show that there remained genuine disputes over whether Harris was a qualified individual, either because in-person attendance was not an essential function of her job, or because telecommuting would be a reasonable accommodation for her. It pointed to Ford’s telecommuting policy which allowed for “one to four days” of telework each week. It noted that Harris proposed that she be able to work from home up to four days each week, as was arguably allowed under the policy, not that she be permitted to telecommute four days each and every week. 

The dissent also asserted that Harris’ past attendance issues that were a result of her disability should not be used against her in deciding whether a telecommuting arrangement during core business hours would be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Moreover, the dissent found that Ford should have engaged in a more interactive process to clarify Harris’ telecommuting accommodation request. Finally, the dissent believed that there was a genuine dispute over whether Ford retaliated against Harris for filing her discrimination charge. 

Lessons for Employers Facing ADA Telecommuting Accommodation Requests 

The majority’s decision finding that regular and predictable in-person attendance is an essential function of most jobs, especially interactive ones, is favorable for employers. But it does not mean that telecommuting can never be a reasonable accommodation. In fact, the dissent in this case demonstrates that telecommuting requests for disabled employees is likely to continue to be an issue with which employers will grapple in coming years.  

If face-to-face interactions and in-person attendance at meetings or other work-related functions is essential for certain jobs at your workplace, be certain to include those tasks in your job descriptions. If you generally allow telecommuting, be sure to have a written policy and apply it consistently. If presented with a request to telecommute in order to accommodate a disability, engage in an interactive process to discuss whether telecommuting would be appropriate for that particular position and employee, whether it would constitute an undue hardship for your organization and if alternative accommodations would allow the employee to perform his or her essential functions. And by all means, make sure you have concrete documentation of an employee’s poor performance or policy infractions before taking adverse action against anyone who has filed a discrimination charge.

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February 16, 2015

Lessons From a $15M Discrimination Verdict

Mark Wiletsky of Holland & HartBy Mark Wiletsky 

A Colorado federal jury reportedly awarded $15 million last week to 11 workers who claimed they had been subject to workplace harassment, discrimination and retaliation because of their race and national origin. Ten of the 11 current and former workers who sued their employer, a trucking and mail-sorting company at Denver International Airport, were black men. Three had been born in the United States and the remaining seven were from Mali, Guinea and Brazil. Their allegations included that racist comments pervaded the workplace, that they were discriminated in work assignments, layoffs and pay and were segregated into certain unfavorable job categories and shifts, and that they faced retaliation after complaining about the harassment and discrimination. 

Although we do not know exactly which facts or claims persuaded the jury to award this large sum, the fact that the jury awarded $13 million dollars for punitive damages suggests that it believed the company’s actions (or inactions) were particularly bad. 

What can you learn from this significant discrimination verdict? Even if the verdict is later reversed or reduced, you can learn what not to do when managing a racially and ethnically diverse workforce. 

Ignoring Complaints and Promoting the Harassers 

The workers in this case alleged that they complained internally about racist comments and slurs made by supervisors, leads and co-workers and that nothing was done. Examples of some supposed comments directed toward the workers were “lazy, stupid Africans,” “go back to your f***ing country,” “they need to fire all the n***ers here” as well as regular use of the N-word. Instead of stopping the comments, management supposedly turned a deaf ear and even promoted some of those who made the slurs. 

Don’t ignore inappropriate comments when you hear them. It is up to you to stop racial and ethnic slurs immediately and take action to ensure they are not pervasive in your workplace. If an employee complains about discriminatory name-calling and threats, you need to investigate the report and take appropriate action. Be sure to confirm—in writing—that you met with the accuser(s) to discuss the results of your investigation, and ensure there is no retaliation. Then follow-up again to ensure things have improved. Doing so will demonstrate your commitment to a workplace free from discrimination and harassment – so long as you are prepared to take action against those who violate your policies. 

Failing to Enforce EEO and Harassment Policies 

You likely have an Equal Employment Opportunity and a Harassment policy in your employee handbook, but they do no good if you fail to enforce them. Review your policies, train your supervisors on them and enforce them uniformly and consistently. 

Retaliating Against Those Who Complain or Their Supporters 

The eleventh worker who sued the trucking company in this case was a white man who offered support for the African workers and provided evidence supporting their allegations. After being terminated from his job, he alleged his firing was in retaliation for his support. 

Retaliation is within company control and in many cases, is preventable. Train your supervisors not to treat an employee who has complained of discrimination or harassment, or who has participated in a charge or lawsuit, differently than other employees are treated. Carefully analyze any adverse decision that would affect such an employee and make sure your decision is based on legitimate business reasons and is well-documented, in case you have to defend a retaliation complaint. 

Fifteen Million Reasons To Do It Right 

You don’t want to end up in front of a jury defending your employment practices, but if you find yourself in that position, you want to be able to show a jury you did everything you could to prevent discrimination and harassment in your workplace. If you don’t take those actions, a jury may very well punish you for it.

September 23, 2014

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

Cave_BBy Brad Cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 7, 2014

Favoritism to Paramour is Not Gender Discrimination

Cave_BBy Brad Cave 

Friendship, cronyism, nepotism, affairs – many types of personal relationships may result in one employee being treated better than another employee.  But is that favoritism discriminatory?  Does the non-favored employee have a discrimination claim against the employer?  No, Title VII does not prohibit favoritism based on a special relationship, says the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

“I Like You Best” 

If an employer pays the CFO’s sister a higher wage than other employees doing similar work,  offers the most lucrative deals to an employee who is the boss’s best friend or gives playoff tickets as a bonus to the manager’s boyfriend who works at the company, that special treatment is permissible because it is based on the special relationship or bond between the parties, not on a protected characteristic.  It is only when the differential treatment is based on an impermissible classification, such as gender, race or age, that it crosses the line into unlawful discrimination.  In a recent decision, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that distinction, ruling that a supervisor’s favoritism toward a female subordinate based on their purported intimate relationship did not amount to reverse gender discrimination against her male counterpart.  Clark v. Cache Valley Elec. Co., No. 13-4119 (10th Cir. July 25, 2014). 

Reverse Gender Discrimination Under Title VII 

Project manager Kenyon Brady Clark sued his employer, Cache Valley Electric Company, alleging violations of Title VII.  Clark’s discrimination claim alleged that his supervisor, Myron Perschon, favored a female project manager, Melissa Silver, over him because Perschon and Silver were in a romantic relationship.  Clark asserted that Perschon gave Silver better work assignments, paid her more for performing less work and performed most of Silver’s job duties himself.  Although it turned out that there had been no affair, Clark still asserted that “whether they were having sex or not, there was favoritism.”  When asked about the reason for the favoritism at his deposition, Clark admitted that if the favoritism was not due to a romantic relationship, he did not know the reason for it. 

The Court analyzed Clark’s claim as a reverse gender discrimination case under which Clark needed to show circumstances that would support an inference that his employer discriminates against the majority (i.e., males) or that “but for [his] status the challenged decision would not have occurred.”  Significantly, Clark did not assert that the favoritism was due to Silver being a female or that Cache Valley treated women more favorably than men.  Instead, Clark focused on the preferential treatment that his supervisor offered to one specific female employee.  That deficit was fatal to his reverse gender discrimination claim.  The Court cited numerous cases where the motives for preferential treatment were other special relationships, such as friendship, nepotism or personal fondness or intimacy, in which it had ruled that such favoritism was not within the purview of Title VII’s anti-discrimination provisions.  Because Clark’s discrimination claim was based only on the favoritism shown to a special friend and not on a protected characteristic, his claim was not covered by Title VII.  The Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of Cache Valley. 

Retaliation Claim Fails Too 

Clark also raised a retaliation claim in his lawsuit against Cache Valley.  Clark asserted that his supervisor, Perschon, retaliated against him by trying to get a competitor to hire him, refusing to communicate with him and otherwise distancing himself from Clark.  Clark also alleged that he was fired in retaliation for complaining about Perschon’s favoritism and retaliation.  He had complained to management about the alleged affair between Perschon and Silver, stating that it was difficult to continually respond to vendors and suppliers who had questions about the purported relationship.  He reported that they were acting like a married couple.  He later complained about the preferential treatment that Silver received from Perschon, including receiving better job assignments and higher bonuses.  In a letter to the company’s CEO and to human resources, Clark wrote that over the past three years, he had personally and professionally suffered serious and real adverse effects to his employment due to the alleged affair.  He wrote that the affair created a hostile work environment and that it was the company’s responsibility to ensure that the workplace was free of harassment and retaliation.  Shortly after meeting with HR and the company’s legal counsel to discuss his letter, Clark was terminated. 

The Court rejected Clark’s retaliation claim.  To make out a Title VII retaliation claim, Clark needed to show that (1) he engaged in protected opposition to discrimination, (2) a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, and (3) a causal connection existed between the protected activity and the materially adverse action.  The Court concluded that Clark failed to show that he engaged in protected opposition to discrimination.  He needed to show that he had a reasonable good-faith belief when he complained to the company that he was engaging in protected opposition to discrimination and that his good-faith belief was reasonable both subjectively and objectively.  He failed to do so.  Although he made statements about a “hostile work environment” and “discrimination” in his complaints to the company, the Court found such statements to be conclusory and not related to gender discrimination.  The statements were about Perschon’s favoritism to Silver based on the alleged inappropriate relationship, which was not gender discrimination.  Therefore, Clark’s retaliation claim failed. 

Just ‘Cuz It’s Legal Doesn’t Make It Smart 

Clark’s reverse discrimination claim was a little more cut and dried than most because he essentially admitted that the preferential treatment shown by his supervisor to a female colleague was not due to her status as a female.  Consider whether the outcome would have been different had Clark provided evidence that the supervisor historically treated women better than men.  Or think about other situations where special relationships result in favoritism, such as when the boss takes all his male cronies to play golf with clients while the female employees toil away at work.  Even though the courts have been clear about distinguishing favoritism based on special relationships from discrimination based on a protected class, employers are wise to steer clear from favoring some employees over others, especially when it comes to pay, bonuses and benefits where the non-favored employees can prove financial harm.  Keeping the terms and conditions of employment on an even footing will help keep your workplace productive, the morale of employees high and your company out of court.

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