By Brent I. Clark, Erin Dougherty Foley, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: DOT has withdrawn its rulemaking on safety sensitive positions in highway and rail transportation.

This week the U.S. Department of Transportation has withdrawn its March 10, 2016 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on the Evaluation of Safety Sensitive Personnel for Moderate-to-Severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). 82 Fed. Reg. 37038 (Aug. 8, 2017).

The News Release indicates that “the Agencies have determined not to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking at this time and believe that current safety programs and Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) rulemaking addressing fatigue risk management are the appropriate avenues to address OSA.”  Emphasis added.

The ANPR had been directed at individuals occupying “safety sensitive positions” in highway and rail transportation, and on its potential consequences for the safety of rail and highway transportation. The DOT’s Agencies, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the FRA, through the rulemaking, were requesting data and information from employers and the public concerning the prevalence of moderate-to-severe obstructive sleep apnea among those employees in those positions.

The DOT had defined obstructive sleep apnea as a “respiratory disorder characterized by a reduction or cessation of breathing during sleep. OSA is characterized by repeated episodes of upper airway collapse in the region of the upper throat (pharynx) that results in intermittent periods of partial airflow obstruction (hypopneas), complete airflow obstruction (apneas), and respiratory effort-related arousals from sleep (RERAs) in which affected individuals awaken partially and may experience gasping and choking as they struggle to breathe.”

The ANPR stated that risk factors for developing OSA included: obesity, male gender, advancing age, family history of OSA, large neck size, and an anatomically small oropharynx (throat). Additionally, OSA was associated with increased risk for other adverse health conditions such as: “hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, obesity, cardiac dysrhythmias (irregular heartbeat), myocardial infarction (heart attack), stroke, and sudden cardiac death.

The withdrawal of this rulemaking may save employers in these industries perhaps considerable efforts and costs, although familiarity with the ANPR and comments received on the rulemaking may be worthwhile.

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) or Labor & Employment Teams.

 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an EEOC lawsuit alleging that an employer failed to reasonably accommodate its Muslim employees’ requests for prayer breaks, a federal court in Colorado granted the EEOC’s motion for sanctions — as a result of the employer’s failure to preserve and produce various records — and barred the employer from presenting evidence, testimony, or arguments that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.  This ruling provides an important lesson for businesses regarding the preservation of documents in ongoing EEOC litigation.

***

In EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC, Case No. 10-CV-02103, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122908 (D. Colo. Aug. 4, 2017), the EEOC alleged that JBS USA, LLC (“JBS”), a meat packing company, discriminated against its Muslim employees on the basis of religion by engaging in a pattern or practice of retaliation, discriminatory discipline and discharge, harassment, and denying its Muslim employees reasonable religious accommodations.  After the EEOC moved for sanctions regarding JBS’s failure to produce two types of records relating to delays on JBS’s production line, Judge Phillip A. Brimmer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado granted in part the EEOC’s motion and barred JBS from presenting evidence, testimony, or argument in its motions, at hearings, or at trial that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.

For employers involved in government enforcement litigation, this ruling serves as a cautionary tale regarding the importance of preserving and producing relevant records, and that the failure to do so might cost employers the ability to later use such records in their defense.

For more information on this lawsuit (and a similar Nebraska case where JBS successfully obtained summary judgment), see our blog posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Case Background

JBS operates a beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado.  Id. at *2.  During the first week of Ramadan 2008, a dispute occurred between JBS and its Muslim employees over their opportunities to pray, resulting in hundreds of Muslim employees walking off the job.  On September 10, 2008, JBS fired 96 Muslim employees that refused to return to work.  After the mass termination, numerous former employees filed discrimination charges with the EEOC.  Id.  In response, on February 3, 2009, JBS submitted a position statement where it argued that granting prayer breaks to employees would be an undue burden, in part, due to losses resulting from “each minute of production down-time.”  Id.  JBS continued to assert its undue burden affirmative defense throughout the case, for instance, arguing in its summary judgment motion that production line slowdowns and downtime would have been caused by allowing prayer breaks to Muslim employees.

The EEOC sought discovery from JBS about its undue burden affirmative defense.  Relevant here, on November 21, 2012, the EEOC served a production request regarding the production of all reports or data showing all dates and times the fabrication lines on any and all shifts were stopped, as well as the speed of the lines.  In response, JBS produced documents that included records showing scheduled breaks, but did not provide or reference the Down Time Reports or Clipboards, which show unplanned downtime and slowdowns.  The EEOC thereafter moved for sanctions for the loss or destruction of documents directly relevant to JBS’s allegations of undue hardship.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for sanctions.  While JBS had produced Clipboards from 2012-2016 and Down Time Reports from 2016, it claimed that all others had been destroyed.  JBS later testified via Rule 30(b)(6) deposition that the Down Time Reports were shipped to storage each year, but may have been destroyed.  After searching its warehouse for “a day” in 2017,  JBS later located and produced some additional records.  Id. at *6.  The Court thus found that JBS failed to supplement its production with responsive records in a timely manner.  The Court held that because JBS did not show that its failure to supplement was substantially justified or harmless, it would impose sanctions pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(c)(1).  Id.

Next, the Court explained that spoliation occurs when a party loses or destroys evidence that it had a duty to preserve because it was relevant to proof of an issue at trial in current or anticipated litigation.  Id. at *7 (citation omitted).  JBS argued that it did not have a duty to preserve these documents because it had no way of knowing or anticipating that the EEOC would be interested in knowing the specific time of every instance of every day that the production line stopped for an unplanned or unexpected reason.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that JBS ignored the fact that it asserted an undue burden defense within a year of the September 2008 incident and after charges of discrimination had been filed against it.  As such, the Court held that JBS had a duty to preserve documents relevant to the burden posed by the proposed accommodations.  Id. at *8 (citation omitted).

Arguing that the lack of production of records did not cause a prejudice to the EEOC, JBS stated that the records did not show whether any slowdown or stoppage was related to a prayer break because the information they contained was “only as specific as the information known to the person filling out the Down Time Report.”  Id. at *10.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that “[r]ecords such as those sought, which potentially show the actual impact of unscheduled employee prayer breaks, are particularly important to understanding the impact such breaks would have on production line slowdowns or stoppages because they would provide contemporaneous records of whether unscheduled breaks led to production downtime.”  Id. at *12.  Accordingly, the Court found that the EEOC was prejudiced by JBS’s spoliation of evidence.  Id.

In fashioning a sanction that “appropriately addresses the prejudice to the EEOC resulting from JBS’s spoliation or failure to produce the records and is proportional to JBS’s culpability,” the Court held that it would bar JBS from presenting evidence, testimony, or argument in its motions, at hearings, or at trial that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.  Id. at *14.  The Court explained that this sanction was “tailored to the evidence lost, destroyed, or withheld by JBS because it alleviates the prejudice which the EEOC would otherwise suffer, namely, that JBS may present evidence of stoppages through witnesses, but the EEOC would not be able to rebut such testimony with records that would likely prove whether stoppages actually occurred and, perhaps, for what reason.”  Id.  Accordingly, the Court granted in part the EEOC’s motion for sanctions for the loss or destruction of documents.

Implications For Employers

An employer’s likelihood of defeating a workplace class action is often dependent on its ability maintain and preserve thorough employment records.  Here, the employer’s failure to preserve records that ultimately could have helped establish an affirmative defense resulted in the Court limiting the employer from using certain types of evidence in its defense of the litigation.  This sanction should serve as a cautionary tale for employers in regards to complying with the written discovery process, as employers are best-positioned to defeat workplace class actions when they have as many defenses as possible in their arsenal.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

 

By Erin Dougherty Foley, Ashley K. Laken, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: According to the EEOC in this just filed lawsuit, a home care services provider in North Carolina violated federal disability rights law when it rejected telecommuting requests from an employee whose asthma and COPD “made her sensitive to workplace smells.” 

Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against a home healthcare company to “correct unlawful employment practices on the basis of disability.”  In the complaint, filed in EEOC v. Advanced Home Care, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-00646 (M.D.N.C. July 12, 2017), the EEOC alleges that Advanced Home Care, Inc. refused to provide Elizabeth Pennell, a “qualified individual with a disability,” with a reasonable accommodation, and discharged her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the EEOC, Pennell was a case manager for patients requiring home services. As a case manager, Pennell was required to spend part of her day on telephone calls. In 2015, Pennell began to experience frequent asthma attacks and flare-ups of bronchitis.  After collapsing at work after a heavy bout of coughing, she was hospitalized where she was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and COPD.

The complaint alleges that as a “consequence of asthma, bronchitis, and COPD, Pennell experiences wheezing, severe bouts of coughing, and asthma attacks,” and that Pennell’s physical impairments “substantially limit her in the major life activity of breathing. . . and constitute a disability under the ADA.” The EEOC alleges that scents and odors aggravate Pennell’s COPD and asthma, that she worked in a cubicle in close proximity to hundreds of other employees, and that she was therefore subjected to these types of irritants, including the smell of smoke on other employees’ clothes.

The EEOC claims that Pennell’s supervisor “ignored Pennell’s repeated requests to telework” and that teleworking would have allowed Pennell to be away from actual and potential respiratory irritants. The EEOC also claims that Pennell’s supervisor told her she would terminated if she could not return to work without restrictions.  The complaint alleges that Pennell could have performed the essential functions of her position with the reasonable accommodation of telework.  The EEOC also claims that as a consequence of Pennell’s disability, she had difficulty talking continuously for extended periods of time, and if she had been allowed to telework, she would not have been required to take inbound calls and therefore would have spent less time on the phone.

Employers should note that this scenario is somewhat unusual but that telecommuting has been an issue on the EEOC’s radar for the last several months (i.e., is working from home a reasonable accommodation?). Right how we only have the EEOC’s allegations and no response from the employer.  (We’ll be keeping an eye on this litigation to see how it plays out.)  However, the critical take away (regardless of how the employer responded) is the proper handling and response to employee accommodation requests.  Company policies and procedures as well as internal manager training systems for these sorts of requests and responses should be well set out and diligently followed.

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

Just a reminder that until July 30, 2017, voting is open for the American Bar Association’s annual 100 Best Legal Blogs competition, though this year the contest is a “Web 100” and will include websites and social media along with legal blogs. We hope you will cast your vote today to help Seyfarth’s Employment Law Lookout blog get on the ABA’s list for 2017.

The Employment Law Lookout Blog is a resource for employers seeking intelligent discourse and updates on the today’s most pressing workplace issues. Our mission is two-fold: to provide critical, real-time updates on employment law matters to in-house counsel and HR executives, and to keep our audience apprised of new trends and developments on the horizon.

Seyfarth’s bloggers draw upon their own first-hand experiences counseling businesses large and small to provide you with their insights about the most cutting-edge issues on new regulations, guidance, and court decisions.

Help us gain some extra recognition by casting your vote in the ABA’s Web 100 competition!

Click here to vote. Simply provide a short explanation of why you like this blog.

The deadline to nominate the blog is Sunday, July 30, 2017, so don’t delay. Polls are open!

By Anthony CalifanoAriel D. CudkowiczJohn Ayers-Mann, and Frederick T. Smith

Seyfarth Synopsis: On May 23, 2017, in Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Co., a Rhode Island Superior Court issued a unique decision regarding employer obligations to medical marijuana users.

The Judge who penned the decision began his analysis by quoting a 1967 lyric from The Beatles’ song “With A Little Help From My Friends”: “I get high with a little help from my friends.”  In the 32-page opinion followed this witty opening, the Court held that an employer’s refusal to hire an individual based on her medical marijuana use violated Rhode Island’s medical marijuana statute, and the employer’s conduct may have amounted to disability discrimination under the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act (“RICRA”).

The Plaintiff, Christine Callaghan, applied for a position as an intern with Darlington Fabrics.  During her interviews, she disclosed to the company that she used medical marijuana and would test positive for it in her pre-employment drug test.  The company refused to hire her.  Callaghan filed a complaint alleging disability discrimination under the RICRA and seeking a declaratory judgment that the company’s refusal to hire her based on her medical marijuana use violated the Hawkins-Slater Act–Rhode Island’s medical marijuana statute.  Like its counterparts in numerous other states, the Hawkins-Slater Act prohibits an employer from refusing to employ “a person solely for his or her status as a [medical marijuana] cardholder.”

The Court addressed two primary questions. The first question was whether the Hawkins-Slater Act creates a private right of action that allows an individual to file a lawsuit in court for alleged violations of the statute.  The second question was whether a refusal to hire an applicant based on medical marijuana use could amount to disability discrimination under the RICRA.  The Court answered yes to both questions.

Addressing the private right of action question, the Court acknowledged that the Hawkins-Slater Act does not contain any express language authorizing an individual to sue an employer for violation of the statute.  The Court also acknowledged the general principle against assuming that a private right of action exists when the legislature chose not to create one.  On the other hand, the Court also recognized the legal principle that a court should not attribute to the legislature an intent to enact a meaningless statute.  Ultimately, the Court concluded that the Hawkins-Slater Act would be meaningless if it does not allow a private person to sue an employer for violating the statute.  Thus, the Court held that an implied private right of action exists under the Hawkins-Slater Act, and the employer violated the law by refusing to hire Callaghan because of her medical marijuana use.  In so holding, the Court rejected the notion that there is a meaningful distinction between a medical marijuana “cardholder” and a medical marijuana “user.”  The Hawkins-Slater Act, according to the Court, protects medical marijuana cardholders who use marijuana because a physician has recommended it. The Court therefore granted a declaratory judgment in Callaghan’s favor.

As for Callaghan’s claim of disability discrimination under the RICRA, the employer moved for summary judgment on several grounds.  The company argued, relying on the Americans with Disabilities Act, that active drug use is not a disability. The Court rejected this argument, reasoning that the RICRA defines disability more broadly than the Americans with Disabilities Act.  It also reasoned that an individual must have a “debilitating medical condition” to qualify as a cardholder under the Hawkins-Slater Act.  Accordingly, the employer could have inferred that Callaghan was disabled, and thus, could have discriminated against her on that basis.

The Court also rejected the employer’s argument that Callaghan was not a “qualified individual” with a disability because she engaged in the use of illegal drugs.  The Court concluded that, unlike other disability discrimination laws, the RICRA does not protect only “qualified individuals” with disabilities, but rather all persons with disabilities.  Thus, the Court concluded that the employer’s defense was inapplicable to Callaghan’s claims.

Perhaps most notably, the Court rejected the employer’s argument that the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), which classifies marijuana as an illegal drug, preempts the Hawkins-Slater Act.  The Court reasoned that the CSA is not intended to preempt state law unless it is in positive conflict with the CSA.  Because the Hawkins-Slater Act does not require the employer to violate the CSA, the Court held that the CSA does not preempt the Hawkins-Slater Act.

In light of its conclusions, the Court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment on Callaghan’s disability discrimination claim under the RICRA.  Callaghan did not more for summary judgment in her favor on this claim, but the Court observed that “but for [Callaghan’s] disability–which her physician has determined should be treated by medical marijuana–[Callaghan] seemingly would have been hired for the internship position.”

While the Callaghan decision is not binding on any other courts, it is noteworthy.  It goes against the weight of authority from courts in other states in its analysis of the interplay between medical marijuana and anti-discrimination laws.  More importantly, it does so in a way that could require many employers with operations in Rhode Island (and perhaps other states) to change their policies regarding the hiring and continued employment of medical marijuana users.  If appealed, will the decision hold up?  Will other courts in other states issue similar decisions?  Time will tell.

 

By Dawn Reddy Solowey

Seyfarth Synopsis: A recent decision by a federal district court in Minnesota held that a religious accommodation request is not “protected activity” under Title VII.  In defending retaliation litigation, employers should consider whether there is a viable argument that a request for religious accommodation is not sufficient to establish protected activity as a matter of law.  Employers considering requests  for religious accommodation should, despite this decision, proceed carefully when considering the request.

In a recent blog post, we wrote about a federal case pending in Minnesota, where an employer had challenged guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and taken the position that a religious accommodation request does not meet the test for protected activity under Title VII as a matter of law.  On July 6, 2017, the Court ruled, and agreed with the employer.

Case Background

The case is EEOC v. North Memorial Health Care, Civ. No. 0:15-cv-3675, in the U.S. District for the District of Minnesota.  The EEOC sued the employer hospital, claiming that the employer had retaliated against an applicant by withdrawing a conditional job offer because she asked for a scheduling accommodation for her religious beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist.  On March 15, 2017, the employer moved for summary judgment.  The employer argued that the retaliation claim failed on grounds including that a religious accommodation request did not amount to protected activity as a matter of law.

What Did the Court Rule?

The Court sided with the employer, holding that a religious accommodation request is not protected activity.

The Court noted that as far as the Court and parties were aware, no court in the 8th Circuit had decided whether requesting a religious accommodation is a protected activity under Title VII.  The Court reasoned that it must interpret Title VII according to its plain language.  Title VII provides for two categories of protected activity: (1) opposing any practice that violates Title VII; and (2) making a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII.  Applying that plain language, the Court concluded that “requesting a religious accommodation is not a protected activity.”

The Court noted that the plaintiff had not “opposed” any practice, since there was no evidence she communicated to the employer that its denial of her accommodation request was unlawful.  “In other words, merely requesting a religious accommodation is not the same as opposing the allegedly unlawful denial of a religious accommodation,” the Court stated.

Similarly, plaintiff had not made any charge, testified, or assisted in any investigation, proceeding or hearing prior to the revocation of her offer.  Thus, “the court is unable to fit [the employee’s] accommodation request within the plain language of the statute.”

The Court declined to extend to Title VII the reasoning of an 8th Circuit case that had held that requesting a disability accommodation was protected activity under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In addition to noting that the 8th Circuit ADA case had itself been questioned, the Court noted key differences between the language of ADA and that of Title VII.

The Court also held that the EEOC’s guidelines, which advise that requesting accommodation is protected activity under Title VII, are “unpersuasive.”

What Does This Case Signal for Employers Defending Retaliation Litigation?

In defending retaliation litigation, an employer should consider whether, in the relevant jurisdiction, there is a viable argument that a request for religious accommodation is not sufficient to establish protected activity as a matter of law.  The Court’s decision in this case cites to federal cases that have held both ways around the country. As always, it is important to keep in mind that the law governing retaliation claims under Title VII may differ from that under state and local laws.

What Does This Case Signal for Employers Managing Accommodation Requests?

A more conservative approach should guide an employers’ response to religious accommodation requests.  Employers responding to a religious accommodation request would be wise to assume — until there is settled, binding law to the contrary in the relevant jurisdiction — that a request for religious accommodation may be construed as protected activity under Title VII.  As a practical matter, this means that an adverse action that an employer takes against an employee, and that post-dates a religious accommodation request from the employee, may be challenged as retaliatory by the employee and/or the EEOC.

Best Practices for Responding to Religious Accommodation Requests

Best practices for employers to respond to religious accommodation requests, and minimize the risk of retaliation liability, include:

  • Set up a policy and process for managing religious accommodation requests in a manner that is consistent and compliant with the jurisdiction’s law.  Ensure that managers and HR are trained in the policy and process, and that employees know how to request a religious accommodation.
  • Review each religious accommodation request individually on a case-by-case basis. You can read our Roadmap for Responding to a Request for Religious Accommodation here. Given the complexities of this area of the law, it is wise to enlist the help of counsel who specializes in this area.
  • Ensure that any adverse actions taken against an employee, including those subsequent to a religious accommodation request, are based on legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons, and that the business reasons for those adverse actions are well-documented.

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Michael W. Stevens

Seyfarth Synopisis:  The Texas Supreme Court held that the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, did not dispositively address how far government employers must go in providing benefits to same-sex married couples.

In a provocative opinion, in Pidgeon v. Turner, No. 15-0688, the Texas Supreme Court held that Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), does not necessarily require state governments to extend marital benefits to same-sex married couples.

Procedural Background

In 2013, the city of Houston began extending benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees who were lawfully married.  Shortly thereafter, Pidgeon was filed. It alleged that the city’s actions violated Texas and Houston law. The law was enjoined by a state court. In July 2015, the Texas court of appeals reversed the injunction, holding that Obergefell represented a “substantial change in the law regarding same-sex marriage since the temporary injunction was signed,” and that Obergefell forbade states from refusing to recognize lawful same-sex marriages.  The appeals court also remanded to the trial court to issue opinions “consistent with” Obergefell . Plaintiffs then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Court’s Opinion

The Texas Supreme Court reversed. The Court wrote “The [U.S.] Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons.”  Slip op. at 19 (emphasis added). The Texas Supreme Court remanded the case, so the trial court could decide if the Constitution or Obergefell “requires citizens to support same-sex marriages with their tax dollars.” Id. at 20.

The decision rested on the proposition that Obergefell is “not the end” of the inquiry as to the “reach and ramifications” of the constitutional status of same-sex marriage.  Id. at 23.  Notably, the Texas Supreme Court acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court had, in the same week, decided Pavan v. Smith, No. 16-992, which rejected the state of Arkansas’ efforts to limit recognition of same-sex parents on birth certificates.  In Pavan, in a per curiam opinion, the Court held that same-sex couples are entitled to the same “constellation of benefits that the Stat[e] ha[s] linked to marriage.”  2017 WL 2722472, at *2 (citations omitted).

Despite the apparent inconsistency with Pavan, the Texas Supreme Court emphasized the purported uncertainty over the reach of same-sex marital benefits by noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has also granted certiorari in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, No. 16-111, a case involving a baker who was sued after he refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.

Next Steps

The trial court may now proceed to the merits of the case, and a ruling that is inconsistent with Obergefell and Pavan is a distinct possibility.  Should the case ultimately proceed to the U.S. Supreme Court, in light of Pavan, and assuming the current membership of the Court remains the same, it seems unlikely that a narrow reading of Obergefell, at least as to governmental actors, would be upheld.  Unlike Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., Pidgeon does not raise any questions of freedom of speech or religious liberty.  Rather, as with Pavan and Obergefell, it addresses whether state actors can treat same-sex marriages differently than opposite sex marriage.

While the decision in Pidgeon may ultimately be vacated, that this decision was issued 2-years after a ruling by the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, underscores that opponents of marriage equality continue to use courts as a vehicle to limit or reverse marriage equality.

As Pidgeon and other challenges to marriage equality make their way through the courts, employers and benefit plans considering modifying their benefit offerings to exclude same-sex spouses should tread very carefully, especially given the EEOC’s position that differential benefit offerings to same-sex spouses violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

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

Voting is open for the American Bar Association’s annual 100 Best Legal Blogs competition, though this year the contest is a “Web 100” and will include websites and social media along with legal blogs. We hope you will cast your vote today to help Seyfarth’s Employment Law Lookout blog get on the ABA’s list for 2017.

The Employment Law Lookout Blog is a resource for employers seeking intelligent discourse and updates on the today’s most pressing workplace issues. Our mission is two-fold: to provide critical, real-time updates on employment law matters to in-house counsel and HR executives, and to keep our audience apprised of new trends and developments on the horizon.

Seyfarth’s bloggers draw upon their own first-hand experiences counseling businesses large and small to provide you with their insights about the most cutting-edge issues on new regulations, guidance, and court decisions.

Help us gain some extra recognition by casting your vote in the ABA’s Web 100 competition!

Click here to vote. Simply provide a short explanation of why you like this blog.

The deadline to nominate the blog is Sunday, July 30, 2017, so don’t delay. Polls are open!

 

By Rachel Hoffer, John P. Phillips and Mahek Bhojani

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a recent win for employers, the Fifth Circuit clarified that opened-ended or unlimited requests to work from home are unreasonable under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and may be rejected during the interactive process. In addition, the Court instructed lower courts to give preference over other factors to the employer’s judgment about what constitutes the “essential functions” of a particular job.

In today’s hyper-connected world, with more and more workers seeking to telecommute, the EEOC and plaintiffs’ attorneys often take the position that working from home should always be a viable and obligatory accommodation under the ADA. Employers, especially those who allow limited telecommuting, often find themselves defending failure-to-accommodate claims after rejecting requests for unlimited telecommuting.  Fortunately for employers, the Fifth Circuit recently ruled that in most cases employers do not have an obligation to allow telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation.  In addition, the Court reaffirmed that, in determining what job functions are truly “essential,” an employer’s judgment takes precedence over all other factors.

This case makes clear that open-ended telecommuting is rarely required under the ADA, and it also reassures employers that it is their call which functions their jobs require. Because it’s up to employers to determine the essential functions of employees’ jobs, employers should take the time to reexamine their job descriptions, make sure they are up to date, and ensure that they accurately reflect the requirements of the job.  This exercise will help employers navigate the interactive process when employees seek reasonable accommodations, and will assist employers in arriving at fair, reasonable, and defensible resolutions of disability-related issues.

Case Background

In Credeur v. State of Louisiana, Renee Credeur, a former litigation attorney for the Office of Attorney General for the State of Louisiana (aka the Louisiana DOJ), brought suit against her employer for allegedly failing to accommodate her inability to work in the office following a kidney transplant, and for harassment and retaliation, under the ADA and the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law.

In May 2010, Ms. Credeur underwent a kidney transplant and was granted an accommodation to work from home for approximately six months. She then returned to work in the office full time but three years later began experiencing complications.  Starting in October 2013 and continuing through March 2014, because of ongoing medical complications, she was granted permission to work from home.  In March 2014, the Louisiana DOJ told her that she would not be allowed to work from home indefinitely and that she was required to work in the office at least 3-4 hours a day.  She did not return to work, however, but instead applied for and was granted FMLA and additional unpaid leave from April through August 2014.  When her leave ran out in early August 2014, the Louisiana DOJ again asked Ms. Credeur to return to the office and notified her that litigation attorneys could not work from home indefinitely.

Ms. Credeur subsequently brought suit against the State of Louisiana, claiming that she should have been allowed to work from home indefinitely and as long as her doctors recommended it because working in the office was not an essential function of her job. The district court granted summary judgment for the State of Louisiana.  On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, holding that the ADA did not require the employer to allow Ms. Credeur to work from home indefinitely.

The Court’s Analysis of the Failure-to-Accommodate Claim

The Fifth Circuit analyzed whether regular office attendance was an essential function of the litigation attorney’s job. Ms. Credeur argued it was not because she had successfully worked from home in the past, and that by crediting the DOJ’s statements and rejecting her testimony, the district court had engaged in impermissible credibility determinations at the summary-judgment stage. In reaching a contrary conclusion, the Court first reaffirmed that “regular work-site attendance is an essential function of most jobs.”  This is especially true, the Court continued, when the position is interactive and involves a significant degree of teamwork.

To determine what constitutes an essential function, the Court noted that the ADA itself mentions only the “employer’s judgment”—and any written job descriptions—on that issue.  The Court also referred to the EEOC’s ADA regulations, which identify several other factors, including the amount of time spent performing the particular function, the consequences of not performing it, and the work experience of past incumbents, among others.  Importantly for employers, the Court explained that “we must give greatest weight to the ‘employer’s judgment.’”  The Court further concluded that “[a]n employee’s unsupported testimony that she could perform her job functions from home” is insufficient to avoid summary judgment.

With respect to the specific position at issue, the Court reviewed contemporary emails from DOJ personnel and consistent testimony of Ms. Credeur’s supervisors to conclude that regular attendance in the office was an essential function of the litigation attorney job, that Ms. Credeur’s continued absence from the workplace created significant problems for her department and prevented her from executing her work effectively and efficiently, and that her request to work from home on an open-ended basis was not reasonable.

Takeaways for Employers

The Fifth Circuit’s decision joins an increasing number of courts holding that regular workplace attendance is an essential function. This decision also establishes that requests for unlimited or open-ended telecommuting in most cases is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  In addition, the decision emphasizes that courts must give weight to the employer’s own judgment about what constitutes an essential job function.  While helpful, employers will not be able to take full advantage of the ruling unless they have accurate, up-to-date job descriptions that identify the essential functions of the job—including factors requiring regular attendance at the workplace.  Take this opportunity to examine and update your job descriptions.

 

By Hillary J. Massey and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: While employees who have recently taken leave may be terminated for legitimate reasons, establishing a non-retaliatory termination can be challenging. The timing of the termination alone can support causation, and even a well thought out and justified termination may raise issues of fact that would prevent quick resolution in court. The 11th Circuit recently addressed such a case.

In Jones v. Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, LLC, No. 16-11142 (11th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017), Rodney Jones brought suit against his former employer, Accentia Health and Rehabilitation Center of Tampa Bay (Accentia), a long-term-care nursing facility, in Florida state court.  Jones alleged that in suspending and later terminating him, Accentia interfered with the exercise of his rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and retaliated against him for asserting those rights. Accentia removed the action to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, and moved for summary judgment on both of Jones’s claims.

FMLA Leave

Jones, who was Activities Director for Accentia until he was fired in 2015, initially was approved for 12 weeks of FMLA leave for shoulder surgery. The day before Jones was scheduled to return to work, his doctor reported that he would not be able to return to work and resume regular physical activity for an additional 7 weeks. The doctor’s report also stated that Jones needed to continue physical therapy.

Jones wished to return to his job and asked his supervisor to allow him to return on light duty. His supervisor, however, refused to reinstate Jones until he submitted an unqualified fitness-for-duty certification.  Thus, Jones did not ask his doctor for a light-duty certification and instead requested additional time off from Accentia.  He was granted another 30 days of non-FMLA medical leave in order to complete his physical therapy.

Facebook Posts

While on non-FMLA medical leave, Jones twice visited Busch Gardens and went on a trip to St. Martin. Jones sent pictures of the trip to colleagues at Accentia and posted some on Facebook, including pictures of himself on the beach and in the ocean.

Jones returned to work two weeks before the date estimated by his doctor and met with his supervisor at the beginning of the day.  During the meeting, Jones presented his supervisor with a fitness-for-duty certification confirming that he could immediately resume his job.  His supervisor responded by showing Jones the photos from his Facebook page.

Termination

The supervisor then informed Jones that “corporate” believed, based on these Facebook posts, that Jones had been well enough to return to work at an earlier point. Jones was subsequently suspended and given an opportunity to respond to the charges in a letter, but he failed to do so and his employment was terminated.

District Court Judgment

Jones brought suit against Accentia, claiming that Accentia interfered with the exercise of his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for asserting those rights. In February 2016, the district court granted Accentia’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Jones had failed to establish a prima facie case of either interference or retaliation under the FMLA.  Jones appealed.

Appeal

The 11th Cir. affirmed the judgment of the district court with respect to Jones’s interference claim, but reversed the judgment with respect to his retaliation claim.

The 11th Cir. concluded there was no interference because Jones “likely” waived his FMLA right to reinstatement by taking an additional 30 days of leave, he should have submitted a fitness-for-duty certification by the end of his FMLA leave and there was no evidence that Accentia did not implement its FMLA certification policy in a uniform fashion.

As to retaliation, the 11th Cir. reversed, ruling that the short amount of time between Jones’ return from leave and his termination created a genuine issue of fact as to causation. The court also concluded there was a factual issue concerning pretext because Accentia offered shifting reasons for the termination.  Jones was told that he was being fired because he engaged in activities that demonstrated he could have returned to work earlier.  However, during litigation, Accentia offered additional and inconsistent reasons for the termination.

Employer Take-Away

Retaliation claims continue to permeate employment litigation, and often are difficult to defeat with a pretrial motion. When employees go out on medical leave, employers often uncover inefficiencies and performance issues that were not obvious before the leave.  Employers facing such circumstances may want to consider:

  • Waiting a period of time after the employee’s return in order to avoid an inference of causation
  • Placing an employee on a performance improvement plan or other interim step before termination
  • When providing reasons for a termination, using broad terms that encompass various issues
  • Documenting the reasons for a termination in an internal document that is not shared with the employee (if you are working with counsel, mark this document privileged)
  • Training managers, HR individuals and other employees who handle leave issues not to make any comments about the timing of a leave or whether a leave will be difficult for the employer to manage.

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.