Workplace Policies and Processes

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.

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.