Workplace Policies and Processes

By Dawn Reddy Solowey

Seyfarth Synopsis: Anti-Muslim rhetoric dominates many media headlines.  A May 9, 2017 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit highlights the risks to an employer when anti-Muslim rhetoric enters the workplace.

The Facts

In Ahmed v. Astoria Bank et al., the Second Circuit considered a claim brought by a plaintiff employee who had been terminated from her employment at Astoria Bank, at the end of her probationary period, for tardiness and carelessness in checking important documents.  The employee’s claims included that she had been subjected to a hostile work environment because she is Egyptian and Muslim.

The History

The District Court had granted summary judgment to the employer. As to the hostile-environment claim, the Court had reasoned that the alleged stray comments did not rise to the required “severe and pervasive” level.  The employee appealed only the ruling on the hostile environment claim.

The Second Circuit’s Holding

The Second Circuit reversed, holding that a reasonable jury could find that the employee was subject to severe and pervasive discriminatory harassment. The Court relied principally on the employee’s evidence that the supervisor “constantly” told her to remove her hijab head-covering, which he referred to as a “rag”; demeaned her race, ethnicity and religion “on several occasions”; and made a comment during her September 11, 2013 interview that she and two other Muslim employees were “suspicious” and that he was thankful he was “in the other side of the building in case you guys do anything.”

Considering this evidence, together with allegations such as that another manager used hand gestures and spoke slowly to the plaintiff in everyday conversation as if to suggest she did not know English, the Second Circuit held that a jury could conclude that the plaintiff was subject to a “steady barrage of opprobrious” racial and anti-Muslim comments.

On that basis, while acknowledging the evidence was “on the knife’s edge” between summary judgment and trial, the Court reversed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded for a jury trial.

The Broader Context

Concerns about anti-Muslim sentiment affecting the workplace are hardly new. We’ve blogged before about the EEOC’s 2016 Questions and Answers for employers concerning workers who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern.

In that publication, issued in the wake of the Paris and San Bernandino attacks, the EEOC posited that, “Reactions in the workplace to world events demand increased efforts by employers to prevent discrimination.” Since then, the need has arguably only increased.

So What Can Employers Do?

Employers can take preventative steps to mitigate the risks.

  • The current climate is an opportunity for employers to take a fresh look at anti-discrimination and harassment policies, complaint mechanisms, and accommodation practices, to ensure compliance with federal, state and local laws.
  • Effective training not only helps prevent litigation, but can assist a defense. All employees should be trained that harassment and discrimination – including comments such as those alleged in the Ahmed case – will not be tolerated.  Training that is specific and interactive is most effective.
  • Companies should further train managers on nondiscriminatory hiring practices, and how to manage employee complaints.
  • Managers should also be aware of the need to consider accommodations for certain religious practices, such as the wearing of a hijab, and how to process such requests. Managers should be trained that an employee who receives a religious accommodation should never be subject to negative comments as a result.
  • When an employee complains of alleged discrimination or harassment, the employer should investigate promptly, and if a violation is found, take prompt remedial action.

 

 

By Karla E. Sanchez and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employer must reinstate four employees after it terminated the employees for agreeing with a former coworker’s email that complained about their terms and conditions of employment.

Recently, a National Labor Relations Board Administrative Law Judge ruled that a restaurant unlawfully reprimanded and discharged several employees in violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations ActMexican Radio Corp., Case No. 02-CA-168989 (April 26, 2017).

A series of disagreements between a new manager and several of the restaurant’s employees led to several employees reaching out to management to complain about the new manager and to one employee quitting her employment. After resigning, the employee sent management and several of her former coworkers a lengthy email that management described as “hurtful and mean spirited.”  The email went through the reasons why she had worked at the restaurant, why she had loved working with her coworkers, and how the new manager had changed that.  She complained about how the new manager treated them, how several coworkers had complained to other managers, who according to her, did nothing, and she alleged that the new manager was engaging in unlawful conduct. Four employees replied to the email in agreement with the sender and thanked her for sending the email.

Management, who also received the coworkers’ replies, viewed the replies as “deeply insubordinate.” As a result, management decided to meet with the four coworkers to ask them on an individual basis why they had supported their former coworker and agreed with the contents of the email. All four were discharged for, among other things, allegedly engaging in insubordination and agreeing with an email that contained “false accusations of management” and had used “inappropriate language,” including profanity.

The ALJ found that the restaurant unlawfully discharged the four employees for replying to the former coworkers’ email. The ALJ found that the employees’ conduct had been protected, concerted activity. The ALJ noted that these four employees had complained to management about the new manager and about their working conditions and that their replies to the email was an extension of this protected, concerted activity. The email itself also addressed their working conditions, and thus, responding to it was also protected, concerted activity.

The restaurant tried to argue that the email was “opprobrious conduct,” and therefore, lost the protections of the Act. The ALJ disagreed, finding:

  • The four employees did not add anything negative to the original email;
  • The email was a part of an ongoing dialogue between the restaurant and the workers;
  • The email contained little profanity and did not constitute insubordination, but rather, was “a critique of the management style” of the restaurant;
  • The email was distributed internally and did not cause a loss of reputation or business for the restaurant; and
  • The email did not cause a disruption of the business.

The ALJ ordered the restaurant to reinstate the four employees to their former positions, to make them whole for their lost earnings, to pay them for their job-search and interim employment expenses, to remove any reprimands from their files, and to post at the restaurant a standard NLRB notice.

The takeaway for employers:  Employers must be careful when confronted by employees’ criticisms, complaints, and allegations, whether in person, by email, or by posting on social media platforms.  While some “complaints” might not be protected by law and/or might constitute insubordination, an employer should discuss the particulars with an attorney before determining whether the conduct warrants discipline or termination.  Some “complaints,” even when profanity is used and even when they are hurtful to the reader, are protected under the NLRA or other laws, and adverse conduct taken against the employees will be found to be unlawful.

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

By Erin Dougherty FoleyAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Minnesota Supreme Court found that a job applicant need only prove that the employee’s interest in a 12-week maternity leave was the “substantial causative factor” that “actually motivated” the employer’s decision to rescind her job offer and did not need to show anger or hostility about pregnancy under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

In a recent Minnesota Supreme Court case, LaPoint v Family Orthodontics, P.A., A15-0396 (Apr. 5, 2017), a plaintiff challenged an orthodontist’s decision to rescind her job offer after learning she was pregnant and would take maternity leave.  The plaintiff argued that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy because her pregnancy played a role in the employer’s  decision to rescind her job offer.  The district court ruled for the employer at a bench trial!

In setting the standard of proof, the Court relied on Goins v. West Grp., 635 N.W.2d 717 (Minn. 2001) and Anderson v. Hunter, Keith, Marshall & Co., 417 N.W.2d 619 (Minn. 1988). Goins required that a plaintiff prove that the pregnancy “actually motivated” the employer’s decision not to hire. Anderson required that plaintiff demonstrate that the pregnancy was “a substantial causative factor” in the employment decision.

The Court rejected the notion that the pregnancy must be a “but-for” cause of the employer’s conduct. As such, the plaintiff need not prove that the employer would have hired her absent unlawful discrimination in order to establish liability, and “proof by the employer that it would have made the same decision absent a discriminatory motive is no defense.”

According to the Court, the employer stated, on three separate occasions, that the plaintiff’s failure to disclose her pregnancy (1) was one of the “two things [that] really kept [her] from sleeping well”; (2) was one of her “concerns”; and (3) left her “confused,” one of “two concerns” that together constituted “[t]he reason why [she] withdrew the job offer.” Further, the plaintiff argued that “rescinding a job offer because a person fails to disclose a pregnancy is illegitimate discrimination on the basis of sex.” More so, the district court found that the defendant “questioned why plaintiff did not bring [her pregnancy] up initially so they could discuss leave of absence issues at that time,” but that “[h]er concern was the [effect of the] length of the leave sought by plaintiff on the practice.”

The Court recited that the defendant “did not demonstrate any animus toward plaintiff because of her pregnancy. Her overriding concern was the disruption a twelve week maternity leave would have on her practice and the impact upon her employees should she deviate from the Clinic’s longstanding policy of six weeks.”

Finally, the Court concluded that it was unable to determine whether the district court, if it had applied the correct law regarding animus, would have made the same findings of fact. Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded the case.

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 Brent I. Clark, Adam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: OSHA has recently updated and published its enforcement procedures for occupational exposure to workplace violence.  The procedures explain and lay out the elements of an OSHA General Duty Clause violation, as well as NIOSH’s guidance for determining the potential for workplace violence.

OSHA defines “workplace violence” as an act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.  It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults, or homicide.  It can involve employees, clients, customers, and visitors.  In addition, OSHA asserts that nearly two million American workers report being victims of workplace violence each year.  According to OSHA: “unfortunately, many more cases go unreported.”

To assist the Agency and its Certified Safety and Health Official (CSHO) inspectors in assessing and citing instances of workplace violence, OSHA has recently released its updated Enforcement Procedures and Scheduling for Occupational Exposure to Workplace Violence, OSHA Directive CPL 02-01-058 (January 10, 2017).  The Directive was last updated in 2011.

The Directive lays out the elements of a General Duty Clause violation, including:

  • The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
  • The hazard was recognized;
  • The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
  • There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.

The Directive also lists “known risk factors”, which “shall be considered in determining whether to inspect a worksite, [but which] none of them would individually trigger an inspection.” The risk factors are: contact with the public; exchange of money; delivery of passengers, goods, or services; having a mobile workplace such as a taxicab; working with persons in healthcare, social service, or criminal justice settings; working alone or in small numbers; working late at night or during early morning hours; working in high-crime areas; guarding valuable property or possessions; working in community-based settings, such as drug rehabilitation centers and group homes.

How Can Workplace Violence Hazards be Reduced?

OSHA indicates that “in most workplaces where risk factors can be identified,” the risk of assault can be prevented or minimized if employers take appropriate precautions. It suggests that one of the best protections is a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence.  The policy, OSHA advises, should cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.

By assessing worksites, employers can identify methods for reducing the likelihood of incidents occurring. “OSHA believes that a well-written and implemented workplace violence prevention program, combined with engineering controls, administrative controls and training can reduce the incidence of workplace violence in both the private sector and federal workplaces.”

Employers seeking to address this topic in the company’s employee handbook or policy documents should do so carefully, as in the event of an incident, this will be one of the first company documents requested and received by an inspector.

On the enforcement side, we note that OSHA continues to issue citations under the General Duty Clause for alleged workplace violence hazards. However, all of these citations follow one or more actual instances of violence at work.  OSHA appears to be unable to gather sufficient facts during an inspection to support a citation in advance of an actual instance of workplace violence — even though OSHA’s citations allege the employer should have addressed the hazard in advance.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team or the Workplace Counseling & Solutions Team.

By Caitlyn Crisp and Michael Cross

Seyfarth Synopsis: California voters gave the green light to recreational use of marijuana with the passage of Prop 64. Marijuana users may have felt like they struck Acapulco Gold, but a review of the law on drug testing in the workplace may turn out to be a buzzkill.

When can an employer drug test its employees?

Last November, California voters passed Proposition 64—the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. The new law permits individuals over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana or eight grams of marijuana concentrates. California households, regardless of how many people reside there, can grow up to six plants at a time.

But Prop 64 also expressly protects an employer’s right “to enact and enforce workplace policies pertaining to marijuana.” In other words, despite Prop 64, employers may still prohibit their employees from using the sticky icky. This good news for employers who want to maintain drug-free workplace policies may leave some employees dazed and confused.

Employers have had the right to narrowly craft drug testing policies to meet their needs. Reinforcing that right are Prop 64’s drug-free workplace carve-out and the fact that ganja use remains illegal on the federal level. It remains the case, however, that drug testing may affect an employee’s privacy rights, which create limits on when an employer may drug test.

California courts have used a balancing test to determine whether a drug test is legal for existing employees. Courts weigh the employer’s basis for testing versus the employee’s expectation of privacy. The nature of the test, the equipment used, the manner of administration, and its reliability are factors a court may consider in determining whether a drug test is permissible.

If an employer has an objectively reasonable suspicion that an employee is using drugs, then a drug test is likely permissible, especially when there is a threat to workplace safety. California employers generally have authority to eradicate potential harm to their business and their employees’ safety.

Note: Stay tuned for next week’s blog post on random drug testing by employers.

How should the employer notify employees about its drug testing policy?

If an employer plans to drug test, it should distribute to employees a clear drug policy before employees are subject to testing. The policy should explicitly prohibit the use of marijuana and notify employees of the circumstances in which a drug test would occur. This type of notice may decrease a drug testing program’s intrusion on an employee’s privacy interests.

Some employers may choose to educate employees about how marijuana lingers in one’s body beyond the time the “high” wears off. Because cannabis remains in a person’s system longer than other drugs, it’s possible for an employee to test positive for marijuana use that occurred during non-working time. A marijuana test, unlike an alcohol test, will not indicate whether the test subject is under the influence at the time of the test. Rather, a drug test may show THC in the bloodstream that has resulted from marijuana use days, weeks, or even months before the day of the test.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana continues to be a Schedule I controlled substance whose use and possession is illegal. For that reason, employers remain within their rights to maintain drug free-workplaces that exclude marijuana. In addition, federal contractors, under the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act, must establish drug-free workplaces.

Employers generally have the right to institute an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which allows an employee who has failed a drug test to attend an assistance program to help curb a substance abuse problem, or to place an employee in a supervised position and withhold certain privileges during a probationary period. Whatever policy an employer enacts, the policy should give employees clear expectations about the situations in which the employer will exercise its right to conduct a drug test for cause.

Is an employer exposing itself to risk by drug testing employees?

Drug testing employees may give rise to claims by employees for disability discrimination, invasion of privacy, and defamation. In addition, employers who fail to uniformly apply drug testing policies risk exposure to a discrimination suit under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. An employer must not single out protected categories of employees for drug testing.

How can Seyfarth help?

Employers should assess their written policies, and training and education of employees to ensure compliance with California’s drug testing laws. Seyfarth’s Workplace Solutions Group is ready and willing to help to make sure your company is in compliance.

Edited by Chelsea Mesa.

By Karla Grossenbacher

Men typing in Whatsapp on IphoneSeyfarth Synopsis: Given the issues workplace texting presents for employers, employers would be wise to make clear in their policies what method of communication employees may use in the workplace for business purposes. If texting is allowed or tolerated in the workplace, employers need to review their policies relating to employee communication and record retention to make sure texts, in additional to email, are covered.

Texting is becoming more common in the workplace. Most employees use company-owned or personal phones to communicate in the workplace to some degree, and with phones, comes texting.  Even if email is the sanctioned form of communication in the workplace, employees will text.  Some employers may not even be aware their employees are texting with each other or to what extent.  Other employers may be aware and actually permit texting in the workplace or simply tolerate it because they feel they cannot prevent it from happening.

Yet, if employers allow employees to text in the workplace, they will need to think about how they will access, view and preserve employee texts in the same manner that they do with emails. Plaintiff-side lawyers in employment cases are beginning to demand that text messages be produced along with emails during discovery.  If the texts are made from company phones, the basis for such a request would seem to be well-founded assuming the substance of the texts is relevant to the claims and defenses in the case.  However, when the texts are sent or received on personal devices used by employees in the workplace, the issue becomes more complicated.  In such cases, employers typically argue that they are not required to produce texts from their employees’ personal devices because such devices are not within the employer’s custody or control.  But if employees are using personal devices at work pursuant to a Bring Your Own Device program, the argument that such devices are not under the employers’ custody or control is undercut.  Often BYOD policies allow for the employers to take custody of the employee’s personal device for various legitimate business purposes, which would include responding to discovery requests in litigation.

Thus, employers must grapple with how they will fulfill their legal obligations with respect to workplace texts by ensuring they have the same ability to access, view and preserve employees texts that they do with employee emails. And this need will only grow more pressing as time goes on.  Some commentators say that, given the strong preferences of Generation Y for texting, texting will replace email as the primary mode of communication in the workplace of the future.  Thus, prudent employers will start thinking about this issue is now.

The difficulty with texting in the workplace is that — from the employer’s perspective — texting is offline. In workplaces in which email is the primary method of communication, employee emails are usually sent, received and stored on an email server that is maintained by the employer.  With the right policies in place, employers have free reign to access, review and preserve employee emails stored on these servers.  There are many legitimate reasons for which employers need to access and view employee communications.  For example, the employer may be conducting a workplace investigation or responding to a subpoena or discovery requests in litigation.  Employers may also have an affirmative obligation to preserve employee communications when they are in litigation or in connection with a governmental inquiry or as required by law.

However, employers do not have ready access to employee texts and are not in a position to preserve them. Unlike emails, texts typically reside on the phones on which they are sent and received.  These phones may or may not belong to the employer, but in order to access and review workplace texts, the employer must first take possession of the phone on which the text resides.  Not only is this a cumbersome process if several employees’ texts must be retrieved, but it may not be possible if the owner/custodian of the phone is not in the office or works remotely.  Moreover, having to take physical custody of an employee’s phone rules out any kind of surreptitious review of texts, which could be important in an investigation of suspected wrongdoing.

Also, where texts reside only on the phones on which they are sent and received, it is much more difficult for the employer to ensure such texts are being preserved in those situations in which an employer has an affirmative duty to preserve such communications. Setting aside the fact that phones can be lost or damaged or suffer a malfunction that makes it impossible to retrieve the texts stored on them, in order for an employer to ensure texts are being preserved, the texts need to be backed up in some way.  If employees are texting on company-owned phones, it is conceivable that the employer could implement a system for automatically backing up the texts.  However, with the proliferation of Bring Your Own Device programs, employees are often using their own phones at work.  Where employees are using their own personal devices in the workplace, the employer would have to require employees to back up their texts to a company-owned computer or server.  Even with a protocol in place for backing up texts, an employer could never be sure all texts were being captured as it is possible for employees to delete texts from a phone before the backup occurs.

There will also certainly be privacy issues raised for employers when they access and view employee texts. Personal and work-related texts will inevitably be commingled, especially if the phone is a personal device.  The good news for employers on this front is that texts appear to garner less privacy protection under applicable law than emails in the workplace.  For example, under the federal Stored Communications Act, which prohibits unauthorized accessing of communications in electronic storage through a facility that provides an electronic communication service, courts have held that a cell phone is not “facility” and that texts are not in “electronic storage” for purposes of the statute, and therefore, the SCA’s prohibitions do not apply to accessing texts on a cell phone.

Given the issues workplace texting presents for employers, employers would be wise to make clear in their policies what method of communication employees may use in the workplace for business purposes. If texting is allowed or tolerated in the workplace, employers need to review their policies relating to employee communication and record retention to make sure texts, in additional to email, are covered.  No one knows exactly what the workplace of the future will look like and how employees will communicate in it, but employers should look into that future now and start taking steps to prepare for it.

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

By Christopher W. Kelleher, Tracy M. Billows, and Joshua D. Seidman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Illinois General Assembly will consider the proposed Healthy Workplace Act which, if passed into law, will require most Illinois employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees.

Illinois legislators have caught the paid sick leave bug that has been going around the Country. Sponsors from both chambers of the Illinois legislature have introduced a bill called the Healthy Workplace Act which, if adopted, will mandate paid sick leave for Illinois workers.

Under the proposed law (House Bill 2771/Senate Bill 1296), employees would be entitled to a minimum of five “paid sick days” each year to: (1) care for their own physical or mental illness, injury, or health condition, or seek medical diagnosis or care; (2) care for family member for the same reasons; (3) attend a medical appointment for themselves or family members; (4) miss work due to a public health emergency; or (5) miss work because the employee or a family member has experienced domestic violence abuse.

Employees would accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours worked. This includes FLSA-exempt employees, who would be deemed to work 40 hours each week for accrual purposes in most cases.

There is some potential for tension if and when the new law is passed.

For instance:

  • Employees will be entitled to determine how much sick time they need to use, but employers will be allowed to set a “reasonable minimum increment” which cannot exceed four hours per day;
  • Employers will also be able to ask for “certification” of the illness, injury, or health condition when employees take paid sick leave for three consecutive workdays. However, “[a]ny reasonable documentation” will suffice if it meets certain criteria;
  • Employers must treat the health information of both employees and their family members confidentially, and cannot disclose this information without the employee’s permission;
  • Paid sick days must be provided at the employee’s oral request, but if need for a sick day is foreseeable, the employee must give at least seven days’ notice before leave begins. If need for a sick day is not foreseeable, however, then employees should provide notice “as soon as is practicable”;
  • And finally, while employers must not discriminate or retaliate against employees for using paid sick leave, they may discipline employees for abusing paid sick leave.

The Bill, which has accumulated dozens of co-sponsors in both houses, was presented for a second reading on March 29, 2017. Stay tuned for further developments.

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 Erin Dougherty Foley and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis:  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 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.