By Erin Dougherty Foley and Craig B. Simonsen

In a recent Eleventh Circuit opinion, the Court found that the insurance carrier was responsible, under Georgia law, for the harm caused by an intoxicated employee’s vehicle usage. Great American Alliance Ins. Co. v. Anderson, No. 15-12540 (11th Cir., February 8, 2017).

In this case, the Court explained, the appellant was involved in a car accident with an intoxicated driver who was driving a company vehicle with his employer’s permission. “After a jury found the driver liable and awarded the appellant one million dollars, the employer’s insurance company, the appellee, filed this suit for a declaration that the driver was not a permissive user – and thus not covered under the applicable insurance policies – because he broke internal company policies.”

The Court found that the Georgia Supreme Court has held that inquiries into permissive use should extend only to whether a vehicle is used for an approved purpose. Citing to Strickland v. Georgia Cas. & Sur. Co., 224 Ga. 487, 162 S.E.2d 421 (Ga. 1968).  “A subsequent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, however, held that a company’s internal rules can govern the scope of permissive use, and that violations thereof can negate an individual’s status as an insured.” See Barfield v. Royal Ins. Co. of Am., 228 Ga. App. 841, 492 S.E.2d 688 (Ga. Ct. App. 1997).  Because the District Court followed Barfield, and thereby narrowed the scope of permissive use beyond what was permitted by Strickland, The Court found that it erred, and reversed and remanded.

Strickland, the Eleventh Circuit found, holds that the only inquiry relevant to determining the scope of a generic permissive use clause is whether a vehicle is used for an approved purpose. See 224 Ga. at 492, 162 S.E.2d at 425. In that case the Georgia Supreme Court found that where a vehicle is used for an approved purpose, an employee’s violations of explicit company policies do not foreclose status as a permissive user. See id. at 492, 162 S.E.2d at 425. “We conclude that the “actual use” contemplated and intended by the policy refers only to the purpose to be served and not the operation of the vehicle.”  The Court concluded that the purpose test set forth in Strickland controlled the inquiry into permissive use. Because the District Court extended its analysis further (to include Barfield), it was reversed.

This opinion, for Georgia employers especially, but for employers generally as well, raises important concerns about employee vehicle usage. Employer liability for employee vehicle usage can come from numerous circumstances, but most generally including injuries or accidents caused by employees acting within the scope of their employment.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employment or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Anne S. Bider, Robert A. Fisher, and James M. Hlawek

Seyfarth Synopsis: On February 5, 2017, in M.C.A.D. v. Country Bank for Savings, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) held that an employer engaged in unlawful disability discrimination when it terminated an employee whose medical leave had ended and who could not provide a definite return to work date. The MCAD found that the employer had an obligation to engage in the interactive process to determine if extending the requested leave was a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s disability.

What should an employer do when an employee whose medical leave has ended cannot provide a return to work date? Fire the employee?  Not so fast.  The MCAD recently found that it was unlawful for an employer to terminate such an employee without engaging in the interactive process to determine if an extension of the employee’s leave would be reasonable.

The Facts

The Complainant was a loan coordinator for Country Bank for Savings. In September 2009, she went on an approved 12-week FMLA leave to give birth.  The leave was scheduled to end on November 30, 2009.  In October, following delivery of her child, Complainant was diagnosed with post-partum depression and notified the Bank that she would not be able to return to work on November 30, as planned.  She provided the Bank with documentation from her medical providers stating that, due to her condition, she would be out of work indefinitely.

On December 11, the Bank advised Complainant that, because her latest documentation did not provide a return date, her employment would be terminated if she did not return to work by December 21. In response, on December 17, Complainant called the Bank and told her supervisor that she hoped to return to work by mid-January.  The same day, Plaintiff’s attorney addressed a letter to the Bank requesting a short extension of Complainant’s leave as an accommodation to her post-partum depression, pending upcoming evaluations from Complainant’s medical providers in mid-January.  The letter stated that after Complainant’s mid-January appointments, she would advise the Bank whether a definite return date could be set.

On December 22, the Bank terminated the Complainant’s employment without further discussion with Complainant because she had not returned to work by December 21 and had not provided a return to work date.

The MCAD’s Decision

The MCAD held that in terminating Complainant’s employment without engaging in dialogue about her return to work date, the Bank discriminated against Complainant on the basis of disability in violation of state law. The MCAD found that once Complainant identified her disability and requested an extended leave, the Bank was obligated to engage in a dialogue with Complainant to determine if the extended leave was a reasonable accommodation.  Here, the Bank mistakenly relied on the 12-week period required by the FMLA as a measure of reasonableness and assumed that all requests for leave beyond the 12-week period were automatically unreasonable.  In addition, the Bank failed to produce any evidence that an extension of Complainant’s leave until mid-January would impose an undue burden on its operations or finances.

What This Decision Means For Employers

This decision reminds employers not to be rigid in administering medical leave. In some circumstances, an extended leave — even beyond the FMLA’s 12-week limit — may be a reasonable accommodation.

Further, the decision demonstrates the importance of the interactive process. Even when an employee is unable to provide a return to work date following exhaustion of medical leave, employers have an obligation to continue the interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation is possible.  In this case, the employer should have extended the Complainant’s medical leave for a couple of weeks because there was at least a suggestion that she could have provided a return date by then, unless doing so would have imposed an undue burden.  As the MCAD acknowledged, if the Complainant could not provide a return date by then and had no prognosis for improvement, the obligation to extend her leave likely would have ended.

In short, the decision shows the importance of flexibility, reasonableness, and interaction in dealing with employees who are unable to return from medical leave.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Absence Management & Accommodations Team or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Steve Shardonofsky and John P. Phillips

Time WarpSeyfarth Synopsis:  The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held for the first time that the continuing violation doctrine applies even when a plaintiff was subject to harassment that was severe enough to put the employee on notice of the duty to file a complaint.  The lower court will now consider conduct many years outside of the 300-day limitations period under Title VII. This decision alters prior Circuit precedent, widens the reach of the continuing violation doctrine, and serves as warning for HR professionals and litigation counsel.

Unlike discrete acts of retaliation or discrimination, conduct that may support a hostile work environment claim often occurs over a period of time and cannot be said to occur on any particular day.  Because of this difference, most courts have long recognized the “continuing violation doctrine,” which essentially says that as long as one harassing act occurs within the filing period, the entire time period of the hostile work environment may be considered by the court for the purpose of determining liability.

In Panagiota Heath v. Southern University System Fdn. et al., a university professor (Heath) alleged that she was subject to ongoing harassment because of her sex by her immediate supervisor as far back as 2003.  The alleged harassment included having her re-write exams, coercing students to make complaints against her, denying her request for a sabbatical, telling her that he did not believe she was capable of writing a book, and excluding her from meetings because she talked “too much for a woman.”  Heath initially filed a lawsuit in Louisiana state court in 2009 alleging sex discrimination, but the suit was dismissed when she stopped pursuing it. She then took a sabbatical in 2010-2011 for job-related stress, but alleged that the harassment continued after she returned to work, including being subject to belittling comments and intimidating conduct from her supervisor. More than 200 students signed a petition asking for Heath to be changed to a “non-hostile” and “non-harassing” work environment.  Heath complained about the conduct in 2009 and 2012.  But there was no indication that the University responded.  In early 2013, she filed a charge with the EEOC and eventually filed her second lawsuit.

The district court granted summary judgment to Southern University on Heath’s hostile work environment claim, holding that she could not rely on any conduct that occurred outside of the limitations period (300 days before filing her EEOC charge) and that the conduct inside the limitations period was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to establish a claim. The district court relied on the Fifth Circuit’s Celestine v. Petroleos de Venezuella (Celestine I) decision from 2001, which addressed the continuing violation doctrine and required courts to consider numerous related factors, including whether “the act has the degree of permanence which should trigger an employee’s awareness of and duty to assert his or her rights.” Under Celestine I, if the harassing conduct was sufficiently severe to put the employee on notice of the need to file a complaint, the employee typically could not rely on the continuing violation doctrine.  Rather than wait until 2013, the district court found that Heath should have filed a claim in 2011 when the harassment continued after her sabbatical.

The Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded, acknowledging for the first time that the Supreme Court’s 2002 National R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan decision overruled Celestine I to the extent that the Fifth Circuit and other Circuits held that “the plaintiff may not base a suit on individual acts that occurred outside the statute of limitations unless it would have been unreasonable to expect the plaintiff to sue before the statute ran on such conduct.”  Thus, at least in the Fifth Circuit, the date on which a plaintiff becomes aware that he or she has an actionable Title VII claim is no longer relevant.  Nevertheless, courts are left with other factors to consider in deciding whether apply the continuing violation doctrine, including (1) whether the separate acts are related, (2) whether any intervening acts by the employer “severed” the acts that preceded it from later conduct, and (3) whether there are any equitable factors that should prevent the court from considering the full scope of the continuing conduct.  Based on these other factors, the Fifth Circuit found that Heath had properly alleged a continuing violation and remanded for a determination about whether the claim relating to conduct since 2011 could survive summary judgment.

The case is a cautionary tale for HR professionals and litigation counsel, and a reminder that over-reliance on the statute of limitations in hostile work environment claims is not an ideal tactic.  Because stale internal complaints and allegations going back many years can be revived in subsequent litigation, HR professionals and employment counsel should take care to always accurately and thoroughly document employee complaints and related investigations, take prompt and effective remedial action when appropriate, follow-up with the complainant, and consider what other actions to take in order to “sever” or “break” a possible continuing violation.

For more information on this or any related topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the  Labor & Employment Team.

By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Lucas Deloach

Seyfarth Synopsis: To the surprise of many, the EEOC is not retreating from the argument first made by the Obama administration that Title VII forbids employment discrimination based on gender identity.

In EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman, informed her employer, a funeral home, of her gender identity and intention to transition.  Although she intended to abide by the funeral home’s gender-specific dress code and wear clothing approved for female employees, she was terminated.  She filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC, and ultimately, the EEOC during the Obama administration brought suit against the funeral home in federal district court alleging that the funeral home terminated Ms. Stephens “because [she] is transgender, because of [her] transition from male to female, and/or because [she] did not conform to [the funeral home’s] sex- or gender-based preferences, expectations, or stereotypes.”

The district court rejected the funeral home’s motion to dismiss, holding the complaint stated a claim for relief based upon unlawful sex-stereotyping but not gender identity discrimination. The district court subsequently granted the funeral home’s motion for summary judgment, in which the funeral home relied in part upon the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) as a defense.  In its order, the district court found that the RFRA did, in fact, operate as a defense to Ms. Stephens’ wrongful termination claim.

In its opening brief to the Sixth Circuit, the EEOC continues to advance arguments originally made during the Obama administration.  The EEOC argues that, “[c]ontrary to the court’s ruling below, Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination ‘because of … sex’ encompasses discrimination based on transgender status and/or transitioning.”  The EEOC also maintains that the “RFRA does not provide what Title VII omits: a defense in this case that exempts the Funeral Home from complying with Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination based on the sincere religious beliefs of its owner.”

Many observers had expected the EEOC to reverse its stance, and the agency may still do so. After all, the full impact of President Trump’s administration on the makeup and enforcement agenda of the EEOC remains to be seen.  Additionally, the administration’s position on a range of LGBT issues is not clear.  The EEOC’s actions here are aligned with President Trump’s statements on preserving President Obama’s Executive Order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT individuals employed by the federal government and by federal contractors.  However, that position is at odds with the DOJ’s and Education Department’s withdrawal of Obama-era guidance advising federally-funded educational institutions that Title IX prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.  (The EEOC’s current position is further complicated by the fact that the stated protections for transgender individuals, found in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, derive in part from Title IX.)

Currently, it appears the EEOC is poised to maintain its position, in the context of Title VII. But it is unclear whether the EEOC will continue to prioritize sex discrimination claims on behalf of transgender employees.  Additionally, although unsettled, a growing number of courts have held that discrimination on the basis of gender identity violates Title VII.  For these reasons, employers are wise to consider how their policies, practices, and procedures impact transgender employees and whether they are sufficiently inclusive.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employment or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

 

By Wan Li and Darren G. Gardner

Seyfarth Synopsis: With these new measures applied to employers, it’s recommended that enterprises conduct self-evaluations of their employment law compliance, and remediate any problems as soon as possible.

The Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MHRSS) has launched a new nationwide grading system to evaluate employers’ employment law compliance. This system has been put in place via the Measures for the Grading of Enterprises’ Employment Law Compliance (the “Grading Measures”) and is effective January 1, 2017.

Prior to 2017, 24 Chinese provinces and cities each had individual schemes to evaluate employment law compliance. These schemes varied widely and were not compatible with counterpart government schemes, e.g., those administered by the State Tax Bureau (taxpayer credit evaluation system ), the Administration of Industry and Commerce (business credit evaluation system ) and the People’s Bank of China (enterprise credit evaluation system).

The Grading Measures will standardize the disparate evaluation systems and may become a key determinant of an employer’s compliance status.

Grading Scope and Criteria

Employers will now receive an annual grade (A, B or C) for employment law compliance in any given year based on (i) the local authority’s routine and random inspection, (ii) review of employment records and (iii) investigations of filed complaints.

The criteria for assessing compliance include reviews of:

  • the availability of internal employment policies and regulations within the employer;
  • proper enrollment and participation in statutory social security insurance programs;
  • compliance with key employment laws and regulations, especially regarding salary payment;
  • female employee protection; and
  • working hours.

Employers with perfect compliance during the year will receive an “A”. Employers that have been disciplined for “non-serious” violations (as enumerated in the Grading Measures) by the local labor authority will receive a “B”.  Employers with “serious” violations will receive a “C”.

Impact on Employers

Grade A employers will be subject to fewer routine checks by the local authority in the following calendar year, while Grade C employers will be monitored more closely, meaning more frequent routine and random inspections.

A different regulation provides that a labor authority may publish on its website the serious violations leading to a designation of Grade C. This could of course adversely impact the reputation and good standing of the employer.

Recommendations for Employers

It is recommended that all enterprises conduct a self-evaluation of their employment law compliance, especially the key issues highlighted by the Grading Measures, and remediate any problems as soon as possible.

Detailed implementation rules and launch schedules for the Grading Measures are not yet available. We will keep an eye on further developments.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the International Employment Law Team,

By Steve Shardonofsky and Brian A. Wadsworth

Texas Law Legal System ConceptSeyfarth Synopsis:  In a decision that is sure to increase the costs and complexity of litigation, the Texas Supreme Court recently held that a former employee’s common law assault claim was not preempted by the state’s anti-discrimination statute. The Court reasoned that if the gravamen of an employee’s claim is that the employer committed assault through a “vice principal”–as opposed to sexual harassment–the employee may pursue the common law claim directly and would not be preempted.

Recently, in B.C. v. Steak N Shake Operations, Inc., the Texas Supreme Court held that an employee could sue her employer for assault where the gravamen of the claim was sexual assault by the employer’s “vice principal”, and not sexual harassment. In doing so, the Court narrowed its previous holding in Waffle House, Inc. v. Williams, 313 S.W.3d 796 (Tex. 2010) that common law torts predicated on the same or similar facts as a sexual harassment claim are preempted by the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”).

In a somewhat bizarre twist of logic, the decision suggests that employees subject to a single, severe instance sexual assault by a “vice principal” may bring a common law claim against the employer; but employees subject to a pattern sexual harassment involving sexually suggestive comments and conduct (including less violent or offensive touching constituting assault) may only bring a claim under the TCHRA (subject to administrative exhaustion requirements and damages caps). Until the courts resolve this open question, employers will likely be forced to defend both types of claims at the same time, while also having to litigate factually-intensive questions regarding who qualifies as a “vice principal” under Texas law.

Plaintiff B.C. worked as a server in the Steak N Shake restaurant in Frisco, Texas. During a shift in October 2010, she claimed that her supervisor assaulted her in the bathroom, pushing her against the wall and sink, groping her, and exposing his genitals. She was able to escape the attack only after the supervisor lost his balance and fell to the ground. Steak N Shake conducted an internal investigation after B.C. reported the incident, but was unable to confirm B.C.’s story. Steak N Shake extended an unqualified offer to B.C. to return to work at any Steak N Shake location of her choosing. B.C. declined the offer and instead resigned. She later sued Steak N Shake for a variety of common law claims, including assault, on the basis that her supervisor was a “vice principal” and therefore Steak N Shake was directly liable for his tortious actions. Steak N Shake moved for summary judgment arguing, in part, that the TCHRA preempted B.C.’s common law claims. The trial court granted summary judgment without explanation and B.C. appealed. The Dallas Court of Appeals, relying on Waffle House decision, affirmed the trial court’s ruling on the grounds that the TCHRA preempted B.C.’s assault claim.

In reversing, the Texas Supreme Court distinguished the facts in Waffle House, noting that the plaintiff in that case (Williams) had asserted a common-law negligent retention and supervision claim based on the employer’s alleged failure to prevent a pattern of sexual harassment by co-workers over six months that included inappropriate comments, suggestive winks, and arguably sexual assault (the employee allegedly held the plaintiff’s arms with his body pressed against hers and rubbed against the plaintiff’s breasts with his arms). Because sexual harassment under the TCHRA based on co-workers harassment is predicated on the employer’s alleged negligence and because it was the employer’s continued negligent supervisor and retention of the harasser that constituted the factual basis of Williams’ claims, the Texas Supreme Court held in Waffle House that the gravamen of the Williams’ complaint was a TCHRA-covered claim and not the negligence claims.

The Court then distinguished its holding in Waffle House from the claim raised by B.C. First, the factual basis for Williams’ common law claim in Waffle House was Waffle House’s continued supervision and retention of the harasser. B.C., on the other hand, only alleged a single instance of violent assault. Second, the Court reasoned that Williams improperly repackaged the assault portions of her sexual harassment claim in terms of negligence. Yet the gravamen of her complaint was sexual harassment by co-workers. Conversely, unlike Williams, B.C. did not allege a pattern or practice of sexual harassment by co-workers. Instead, she alleged that on a single occasion, Steak N Shake, acting through her supervisor, sexually assaulted her. Third, Williams alleged that a co-worker physically harassed her, whereas B.C. alleged that her employer was directly responsible for the alleged assault of a “vice principal” (i.e., her supervisor). Therefore, the Court reasoned, the gravamen of B.C.’s complaint was assault, not sexual harassment under the TCHRA. The Court also noted that there is no indication that the Texas legislature intended for the TCHRA to preempt assault claims against individual assailants (whether a corporate entity or an individual).

The Court’s holding here is likely to cause confusion and lead to strange outcomes. With little guidance, courts will be forced to decide whether the gravamen of a complaint is assault or sexual harassment. Because the Court did not draw a bright line, employees subject to a pattern of non-physical harassment and only one incident of assault may be limited by the TCHRA, whereas employees subject only to sexual assault (but no ongoing harassment) may be free to assert common law claims. Regardless of the final outcome, in the short term employers will likely be forced to defend both claims at the same time, particularly in cases involving sexual harassment by supervisors, managers, or executives. Litigating assault claims and questions about who qualifies as a “vice principal” will also likely increase the costs of litigation in this context.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employment or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Mark Casciari and Meredith-Anne Berger

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The 2016 elections had the effect of hardening the Red-Blue divide in the country.  A number of Blue cities in Red States are enacting ordinances that implement the progressive political agenda, which of course includes pay equity.  Be prepared to see that the Red states in which they lie may attempt to preempt local ordinances.  Red State preemption of Blue city ordinances is yet another battle that is likely to be resolved in court.

The 2016 Presidential, state and local elections across the country reinforced the Red-Blue divide simmering for years.  As a consequence, many Red State legislatures have rushed to enact their agendas before Republican dominance wanes.  In reaction, Blue cities and counties in Red States have enacted their own progressive ordinances or rules.  One area of progressive activism is pay equity — the broad idea that employers need to do more to ensure equal pay for equal work.

Examples of Blue city/Red State progressive activism are plenty. For example, a Philadelphia ordinance bans inquiries into prospective employee salary histories.  Austin, Texas has enacted protections for prospective employees with criminal histories, in an effort to augment job earnings by enhancing equality among applicants.  St. Paul, MN, and Minneapolis, MN have recently passed employee-friendly paid sick leave laws.  It is reasonable to expect more Blue city/Red State activism in the pay equity and broader discrimination context in the Trump era.

There is, however, a movement afoot to counter Blue city and county legislation enacted to further progressive goals that conflict with the political agendas of the Red States in which the Blue cities lie. For example, Arkansas’s Act 137 prohibits a county, municipality, or any other political subdivision from adopting or enforcing any ordinance or rule that creates a “protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law.”  On February 23, 2017, the state’s highest court struck down a Fayetteville anti-discrimination ordinance that sought to extend Arkansas’s anti-bullying statute to prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The court, however, did not address whether Act 137 is constitutional.  In North Carolina, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (“HB2”) prohibits any city or municipality in the state from enacting a law that would prohibit discrimination in employment or in public accommodations on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Not to be outdone, on February 8, 2017, the Pennsylvania Senate passed S.B. 241, which seeks to preempt Philadelphia’s law prohibiting salary inquiries and further prohibitions on discrimination in pay on the basis of gender.  Proposed legislation in Minnesota, H.F. 600, seeks to preempt local laws which provide employees with paid or unpaid leave time and other employment protections.  Proposed HB 577 in Texas would preclude a city or county from adopting or enforcing ban the box legislation applicable to private employers.  Proposed legislation in Arizona would permit the State Legislature to rescind funding to local governments that passed legislation which, in the Attorney General’s view, violated state law or the state constitution.

This article does not address whether state preemption laws will be upheld after court challenge, but simply exposes that a Blue city/Red State preemption issue might arise in future pay equity litigation. Readers should be aware that a Blue city or county law mandating pay equity could be preempted by Red State law, and that such a State preemption statute may itself be subject to challenge in court.  This issue might be rendered moot, of course, if the Congress of the United States enacts further national pay equity standards, and in the course of doing so preempts all related state and local law.  ERISA includes a similar preemption provision in the private sector employee benefit plan context. See 29 U.S.C. § 1144 (a) (absent specified exceptions, ERISA preempts all state law, defined to include the law of its political subdivisions, merely “relating to” an employee benefit plan covered by ERISA).  But don’t expect the current administration in Washington to be in the mood to broaden existing preemption of the authority of the States.  A more sound expectation is further litigation in the Blue city/Red State context over Blue city ordinances addressing such progressive concerns as pay equity.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employment or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

 

By Erin Dougherty Foley and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employer is caught by WHD investigator instructing its employees to lie during interviews, and provides falsified records, containing whited-out and edited time records, in order to conform to the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act standards.

In a recent opinion, the Tenth Circuit ruled that a restaurant chain instructed its employees to lie during interviews, and provided falsified “whited-out” and “edited” employee time records, impeding a Department of Labor investigation, and found that the violation was willful (Perez v. El Tequila, LLC, No. 16-5002 (10th Cir., February 7, 2017).

This case provides a rather stunning look at what, as an employer, you don’t want to do during an official government workplace investigation. In this case the employer edited and changed time records, and then he lied about it, and then directed his employees to lie about it. The Court found that “the records Mr. Aguirre provided during the … Investigation, known as middle sheets, were based on his false summaries of how many hours employees worked, rather than actual clock-in and clock-out times…. Mr. Aguirre withheld [the actual] time sheets during the … Investigation, and many time entries had been “whited-out” and edited to conform with the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA).”

In addition, “employees revealed that Mr. Aguirre instructed them to lie in their interviews during the … Investigation.” Subsequently,  “employees told the WHD investigator that they had been working from 60 to 70 hours per week and were paid a salary…. They said the time sheets were not accurate, and ‘that they were forced to sign’ them.” During the litigation, Mr. Aguirre admitted that the time sheets and middle sheets were not correct, and that he “told his employees what to say in their interviews.”

In its post-trial motion, the government argued that the owner willfully violated the FLSA by: (1) falsifying payroll records, (2) withholding records requested by the WHD investigator, (3) lying to the WHD investigator and instructing his employees to lie, (4) recklessly disregarding his duty to determine whether it was violating the FLSA, (5) recklessly disregarding FLSA requirements, (6) and recklessly disregarding his duty to keep accurate records.

The Court concluded that the “evidence indicates that Mr. Aguirre took affirmative steps to create the appearance that El Tequila complied with the FLSA, including adjusting records to suggest that workers were properly paid, withholding documents, misrepresenting how employees were paid, and instructing employees to do the same. A reasonable jury could not conclude El Tequila’s violations were negligent” but willful.

In light of this Circuit Court opinion, employers may wish to consider the ramifications of this case as they analyze their management systems, policies, procedures, and training systems. While this is an extreme case, to the extent that FLSA rules apply to your operations, make sure that all employees understand the requirements, and are following company policies and procedures to ensure FLSA compliance. (And don’t lie during a government agency’s interview – they really, really, don’t like that!)

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employment or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

 

By Ashley Laken

Seyfarth Synopsis: NLRB affirms ALJ’s ruling finding that a union member’s criticisms on Facebook of the union that represented him were protected by the NLRA.

On February 7, 2017, in Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local Union No. 91, 365 NLRB No. 28, the National Labor Relations Board affirmed an NLRB administrative law judge’s ruling that found that the Laborer’s International Union of North America Local 91 violated the National Labor Relations Act by punishing one of its members for criticizing the union’s business manager on Facebook. We had previously blogged about the ALJ’s earlier decision.

The member’s Facebook posts criticized the union’s business manager for allowing a local politician to become a journeyman without first going through the union’s five year apprenticeship program, and the union punished the member by fining him $5,000, suspending his union membership for two years, and taking him off of its out-of-work referral list.

In finding that the union’s actions were unlawful, the Board observed that it is “elementary” that an employee’s right to engage in intraunion activities opposing the current leadership of his union is concerted activity protected by Section 7 of the NLRA, and therefore found that the member had engaged in protected concerted activity by posting his criticisms of the union’s business manager on Facebook.

The Board then examined whether the union’s interests outweighed the member’s Section 7 rights, and found that they did not. The Board reasoned that the member’s Section 7 right to press the union to change its policies outweighed the union’s vague claim that its reputation was damaged. The Board ordered the union to make the member whole for any loss of earnings he suffered as a result of the unlawful action taken against him, including backpay with interest compounded daily and his search-for-work expenses.

The decision highlights that not only are employee criticisms of their employers potentially protected by Section 7, employee criticisms of the labor unions that represent them may also be protected by Section 7.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the author, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employee Relations Team.