By Mark A. Lies, II,  Adam R. Young, and Daniel R. Birnbaum

Seyfarth Synopsis: The flu and cold season is now approaching. Employers face concerns about how to respond to highly infectious diseases when an employee reports such illness. Seasonal illnesses have the potential to infect employees and shut down operations because of employee absence due to illness. Employers must consider methods to keep their employees healthy and productive while not running into legal pitfalls.

With the return to winter weather, the cold and flu season is once again upon us. This creates challenges for employers. Seasonal illnesses have the potential to spread throughout the workforce, and negatively impact operations. Companies should create a plan to respond to infectious diseases, including how to limit the spread of the disease within the workplace without violating any applicable laws or regulations. Employers should also encourage employees to get flu shots and practice good hygiene at work. Please click on this article for more detailed guidance for employers on dealing with infectious diseases during flu and cold season.

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 Policies and Handbooks Team.

By John Ayers-Mann and Patrick J. Bannon

Seyfarth Synopsis: Although an employee can prove discrimination by showing that an employer’s reasons for adverse action are pretextual, the Eleventh Circuit finds that an employee must do more than merely contest the proffered reasons to survive summary judgment.

A recent Eleventh Circuit decision illustrates that Plaintiffs in discrimination cases face a difficult path to trial. Hornsby-Culpepper pointed to the fact that male employees were given raises around the same time as when she was denied a raise and that her male predecessor was paid more despite being less qualified to show pretext. But, the court concluded that she was merely quibbling with defendant’s business judgment and that none of her evidence sufficed to create an issue of fact as to pretext.

In Hornsby-Culpepper v. Ware, D.C. Docket No. 1:15-cv-00347-SCJ (Oct. 19, 2018), the Eleventh Circuit held that an employee’s efforts to dispute her employer’s non-discriminatory reason for terminating her were insufficient absent evidence that the reasons offered were false.

Avis Hornsby-Culpepper, an African-American woman, served as the Clerk of Court for the Fulton County Juvenile Court from 2009 to 2011. In April 2011, she was terminated. The County hired Edwin Bell, an African-American man, to replace Hornsby-Culpepper. Bell earned $90,000 annually, which was similar to Hornsby-Culpepper’s salary at termination. In July 2012, the position became vacant.

Following a reduction in force, Omotayo Alli, Chief Administrative Officer for the court, submitted a request to hire a Clerk of Court. Interim County Manager David Ware approved Alli’s hiring request at a salary of $71,172. Alli hired Hornsby-Culpepper for the position and told her that she would receive her prior salary. Alli requested that the salary for the position be supplemented from the “professional services” budget. Ware denied the request.

After the denial, Hornsby-Culpepper approached Ware. She asked him why her salary increase was denied when he previously paid Bell more despite him being less qualified. Ware responded that it was because she was previously terminated. Hornsby-Culpepper believed that he denied the request because she was an African-American woman. She filed an EEOC charge in 2013 and a subsequent complaint in 2015 alleging sex discrimination and Equal Pay Act violations.

In February 2015, Hornsby-Culpepper applied for an Associate Judge position with the court, but was not selected. She believed that this was because Ware was friends with Judge Lovett, who was on the selection panel. In May 2015, Hornsby-Culpepper was terminated from her position. Hornsby-Culpepper amended her complaint, claiming that her non-selection and termination were retaliation against her for filing suit.

After discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment. Defendants claimed that plaintiff’s salary request was denied because the County Board of Commissions wanted Ware to stop supplementing salaries from non-salary budget items. Regarding plaintiff’s non-selection, defendants explained that a more qualified candidate was selected. As to plaintiff’s termination, defendants contended that she was terminated due to her performance as Clerk of Court. The district court found that plaintiff could not refute the offered reasons and granted the motion.

On appeal, plaintiff argued that defendant’s reasons were pretextual. She claimed that Ware had increased salaries for white employees, that it was questionable whether the county wanted him to stop using non-salary budgetary items for salaries, and that her prior termination was an improper consideration because it was without cause. The Eleventh Circuit rejected plaintiff’s contentions, explaining that she must do more than “merely dispute the wisdom of Ware’s reasoning.” Plaintiff also claimed that Ware was facing suit from other African-American women for sexual harassment, but the court declined to find those lawsuits to be a basis to infer discriminatory animus.

The court also rejected plaintiff’s Equal Pay Act claims. Although plaintiff disagreed with Ware’s reasons for paying her less, the court required her to show affirmative evidence that his reason was pretextual. As to plaintiff’s retaliation claims, the court found that she had adduced no evidence that the panel’s decision was retaliation due to Ware and Judge Lovett’s friendship. The court found plaintiff’s contentions surrounding her termination equally unpersuasive because plaintiff had failed to indicate evidence that contradicted Alli’s position that plaintiff was not a good fit. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s decision.

Despite the evidence Hornsby-Culpepper produced, the court found that she had not met the quantum of evidence required to show pretext. In the Eleventh Circuit, the plaintiff’s evidence must do more than simply undermine defendant’s reasons, it must establish pretext itself.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Labor & Employment Team.

By Brent I. ClarkJames L. CurtisAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: Last month at the 2018 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress the speakers noted that “safety programs shouldn’t end when employees walk out the door and get into a vehicle to drive.”  The session was presented by Karen Puckett, the Director for the Center for Environmental Excellence Division of Enterprise Development at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Lisa Robinson, Senior Program Manager for Employer Transportation Safety, for the NSC. 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics provided that in 2017 transportation deaths from crashes were the leading cause of workplace deaths in the USA.  These statistics are often lost on safety professionals because OSHA has no jurisdiction over transportation incidents on public roads.  Additionally, 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that 40% of employment fatalities were due to transportation incidents.

Puckett noted that the goal for the NSC’s program was to have considered the best practices for employees who drive for work.  This employment-based driving included not just fleet trucks and other vehicles, which are normally considered in company employee driving policies and training programs, but also any personally-owned employee vehicles and rental cars, vans, and other trucks that employees may use while doing company business.  Puckett explained that vehicles outside of the regular company fleet are often overlooked.

Puckett’s key takeaway was that the company’s personnel policy on driving and accident prevention and the related training materials and systems need to incorporate a recognition of these powerful statistics.  Employers need to build a workplace that promotes responsible driver behaviors, maintenance procedures and records, and effective training programs.

Robinson noted that the employer may also face considerable liability for any fatalities that come from employees driving on company business, however that is demanded by state law in the many states and localities the company may operate in.  Perhaps common sense behaviors for employee drivers to know are company policies prohibiting driving impaired by drugs or alcohol, driving while using a cellphone such as checking email, texting, or using the phone.  Many company policies do not incorporate these kinds of prohibitions.

Robinson concluded by illustrating numerous multi-million dollar jury verdicts and settlement agreements where employers were held responsible — even some where the employee was involved in activities or behaviors that some might reasonably suggest were not in the line of their employment.

For your further information, we have previously blogged on these related issues, including Drive Much? NIOSH Focus on Workplace Safety for Employees Who Drive for Their Job, President Declares “National Impaired Driving Prevention Month”, Asleep at the Wheel: Trucking Company’s Sleep Apnea Policy and Procedures Reviewed by Federal Courts, Impact of Driver Compensation on Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety, Eleventh Circuit Finds Insurance Carrier Responsible In Georgia For Harm Done by Intoxicated Employee, Employees Driving In Illinois? What Employers Need to Know, and Distracted Driving Leads to Employee Accidents and Fatalities.

Employer Takaway

For employers the key points from this session are that employee behavior on public roadways could have a big impact on the workplace.  The employer should have appropriate policies and training systems in place as part of a comprehensive safety program, with an aim to “improve your workplace driving safety culture.”

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 Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By David S. Baffa, Noah A. Finkel, and Joseph S. Turner

Seyfarth Synopsis: Congress has once again proposed legislation that would seek to ban mandatory workplace arbitration of employment claims, despite a string of United States Supreme Court decisions upholding arbitration and class/collective action waivers as a lawful and appropriate mechanism to resolve workplace disputes. 

H.R. 7109, the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, was introduced by Representative Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Representative Bobby Scott, D-Va., with 58 Democratic co-sponsors.  Similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate by Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash, with eight Democratic co-sponsors.  The proposed legislation would  overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Epic Systems, and would amend the National Labor Relations Act to specifically prohibit class and collective action waivers under a new “Section 8(a)(6).”

As proposed, the new law would prohibit any pre-dispute agreement requiring arbitration of employment disputes.  The law also would prohibit post-dispute agreements to arbitrate, unless the agreement is obtained without coercion or condition of employment-related privilege or benefit.  Employees entering into voluntary post-dispute agreements also must be made aware of their rights under what would be a new section of the National Labor Relations Act.  That new section would make it an unfair labor practice to “enter into or attempt to enforce any [pre-dispute] agreement” that would bar or prohibit class or collective actions relating to employment, or to retaliate against any employee for refusing to promise not to pursue a class claim.

While there is no chance that this bill will move in the House of Representatives as currently comprised, it previews the legislation Democrats are likely to pursue if the House changes control next week.  A bill like this could even put a narrowly-controlled Republican Senate to the test, as the perceived unfairness of pre-dispute mandatory arbitration has been the target of considerable media attention, social media campaigns, and as recently as yesterday — large-scale employee activism.  As such, protecting mandatory arbitration of workplace disputes may be an issue on which even conservative legislators might waver.

Indeed, this is not Congress’ first attempt to ban workplace arbitration.  Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Epic Systems, and as part of the #metoo movement, Congress introduced in December 2017, bi-partisan legislation ostensibly aimed at preventing employers from enforcing arbitration agreements of sexual harassment claims.  That bill, “Ending Forced Arbitration of  Sexual Harassment Act,” was introduced by Senator Kristen Gillibrand, D-NY (and attracted some Republic support), but was penned in a way that would actually ban workplace arbitration in its entirety.  We figured it was an oversight at the time, as written in our blog, “Slow Down Congress: You Are About to Render the FAA Inapplicable to Employment Disputes (and Class Waivers), and You Probably Don’t Realize It.”  Clearly, this week’s Halloween bill was no accident.

Most legislative action against workplace arbitration has centered on the idea of prohibiting arbitration of sexual harassment claims, and by extension all other Title VII claims.  Among the earliest efforts begun in 2009, when — perhaps ironically — then-Senator Al Franken pursued the Arbitration Fairness Act, which sought to prohibit the mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims.  While that legislation was not successful, Senator Franken’s efforts led to provisions in the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2010, which to this day prohibits contractors to the U.S. DoD, with limited exceptions, from requiring arbitration of Title VII claims (including sexual harassment claims).  Under President Obama, the DoD prohibition was expanded by his Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order on July 31, 2014, effective January 2016, to all federal contractors.  President Trump, however, rescinded this EO shortly after taking office in late 2016.

Several state legislatures have sought to ban mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims.  Washington, Maryland, and New York each passed laws that would prohibit mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims, but those laws are either explicitly or presumptively preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.  See our Client Alert on the New York Ban.

Facing increasing headwinds against mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims, several large companies have proactively and publicly declared that they will exempt sexual harassment claims from existing mandatory arbitration programs.  Other companies also are considering more limited arbitration programs, such as mandatory arbitration and class waivers for wage-hour claims only.  But the Halloween bill and other attempts to ban workplace arbitration altogether are also becoming more common following Epic.  The California legislature passed a law that would have barred arbitration of any violation of the California Labor Code or the Fair Employment and Housing Act, but it was vetoed by Governor Brown on September 30, 2018.  Governor Brown’s term ends this year, and on November 6th Californians will pick a new Governor of California to take office on January 7, 2019.

Kentucky also recently joined the fray.  On September 27, 2018, the Kentucky Supreme Court, in Northern Kentucky Area Development District v. Snyder shot down a workplace arbitration agreement on the basis that a mandatory arbitration agreement for employment claims is prohibited by Kentucky law, and not preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.   Kentucky’s law prohibits any employer from requiring as a condition of employment an employee to “waive, arbitrate, or otherwise diminish any existing or future claim, right, or benefit…”.  The Court ruled that the statute was not an anti-arbitration clause provision, but an anti-employment discrimination provision.  Of course, calling arbitration a diminution of rights are “fightin’ words” to the U.S. Supreme Court, so we remain on the lookout for a cert petition.

For now, employers are staying the course.  Many companies remain interested in implementing dispute resolution procedures and mandatory arbitration programs that would limit their exposure to class and collective actions.  Most employers report faster and more efficient resolution of workplace grievances and concerns, with more ability to direct money and time to the resolution of real complaints, rather than simply to line the pockets of class action plaintiffs’ lawyers.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Labor & Employee Relations Team.

By Randel K. Johnson

Seyfarth Synopsis: Seyfarth Shaw’s Government Relations and Policy Group invites you to join Senior Political Strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Scott Reed, for a post-midterm election analysis and a discussion on what to expect going forward.

Scott Reed is a well-known figure in Washington, D.C.’s corridors of power and was recently named by Politico Magazine as one of the top “Politico 50” ideas changing politics and the people behind them. He has appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s 60 Minutes and Face the Nation, ABC’s World News Tonight, C-Span’s Washington Journal, CNN’s John King USA, National Public Radio, and other national broadcast programs. In addition, Scott is quoted extensively on national political trends in The Washington PostThe New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.

This briefing will address the following:

  • What is the breakdown of the raw election results in terms of demographics?
  • Was the pre-election polling data roughly correct or were there major surprises?
  • What will be the likely impact on congressional policy initiatives and oversight?
  • Does the outcome reveal a severe partisan divide or were there major crossovers?
  • What lessons, if any, can be learned going into the presidential election cycle?

This program will be moderated by Chair of Seyfarth Shaw’s Government Relations and Policy Group, Randy Johnson.

Cost:  While there is no cost to attend, registration is required, and seating for the in-person event is limited.

Washington, D.C. Office / Webinar

Panel Discussion

Thursday, November 8, 2018
12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. Lunch & Registration
1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Program

Seyfarth Shaw LLP
975 F Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004

 

Live Webinar

Thursday, November 8, 2018
1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Eastern
12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. Central
11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Mountain
10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Pacific

* Connection details will be emailed the day prior to the event

Please note that this event is closed to members of the press. 

By Paul Galligan and Ryan B. Schneider 

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Judge v. Shikellamy Sch. Dist., No. 17-2189, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 27229 (3d Cir. Sep. 24, 2018), the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals adopted a new approach to constructive discharge cases where an employee alleges coerced resignation in lieu of disciplinary proceedings.

Background

Plaintiff Holly Judge, a tenured school principal in Shikellamy School District, resigned after she was arrested for driving while intoxicated. The blood alcohol test revealed that Plaintiff’s blood alcohol content was .332, more than four times the legal limit. Plaintiff was released the same night, and formal criminal charges were not filed at that time.

Twenty days after Plaintiff’s arrest, the Superintendent of Plaintiff’s school district visited Plaintiff’s office and inquired about the incident, which Plaintiff acknowledged. That afternoon, Plaintiff was summoned to the Superintendent’s office and was asked to resign immediately. In exchange for Plaintiff’s resignation, the superintendent offered to provide a neutral reference, but if Plaintiff declined the offer, Plaintiff would be issued a written charge of dismissal premised on “Immorality.” A pre-termination hearing would follow pursuant to Plaintiff’s employment contract. Plaintiff was given until 12:30 pm the following day to accept or decline the ultimatum. Plaintiff did not consult her criminal lawyer whom she had retained after her arrest, but after speaking with her mother that evening and learning that she was charged with “general impairment” and “highest rate of alcohol” DUI under Pennsylvania law, Plaintiff resigned by the deadline.

Thereafter, Plaintiff filed procedural and substantive due process, equal protection, and breach of contract claims against the school district and other individually named Defendants, all under a constructive discharge theory. Plaintiff’s breach of contract and procedural due process claims survived a motion to dismiss but were dismissed on summary judgment. Plaintiff then appealed to the 3rd Circuit.

The 3rd Circuit’s New Approach to Constructive Discharge Claims

The 3rd Circuit acknowledged that there was a rebuttable presumption that employees tender their resignations voluntarily. As such, employees carry the burden of producing evidence that their resignation was involuntarily procured via coercion or duress, viewed objectively.

However, the Court noted that it had not “explained how claims of constructive discharge should be evaluated.” The Court found that the five factors examined by 11th Circuit in Hargray v. City of Hallandale, 57 F.3d 1560 (11th Cir. 1995), provided a useful framework: (1) whether the employee was given some alternative to resignation; (2) whether the employee understood the nature of the choice she was given; (3) whether the employee was given a reasonable time in which to choose; (4) whether the employee was permitted to select the effective date of the resignation; and (5) whether the employee had the advice of counsel. Affirming the district court, the 3rd Circuit closely examined each factor and held that the balance of the factors was insufficient for a reasonable jury to find Plaintiff had overcome the presumption that her resignation was voluntary.

The New Approach Applied

The 3rd Circuit found that the first three factors weighed in favor of the school district. First, the Court found that Plaintiff was offered an alternative to immediate resignation — a written statement of charges for dismissal followed by a hearing before any termination decision. Noting that the charges were not an illusory alternative, the Court highlighted that Pennsylvania law permitted discharge of tenured teachers for immoral conduct and recognized that driving while intoxicated under “certain circumstances” fell within the definition of such conduct.

Second, the Court found that a reasonable school principal would have understood the nature of Plaintiff’s choice between resignation and termination charges because Plaintiff’s annually signed contract outlined the procedure. Third, although Plaintiff had less than 24 hours to decide on the Superintendent’s ultimatum, the Court reasoned that “the clear possible effect of a DUI on the night of her arrest gave [Plaintiff] more than two weeks to foresee the gathering storm.”

Although the Court found that the fourth and fifth factors favored Plaintiff “to some extent,” it noted the fact that from the arrest to her resignation, Plaintiff only consulted her mother despite having retained counsel in anticipation of criminal charges. Thus, notwithstanding Plaintiff’s uncounseled decision and inability to set her resignation date, the appellate court presumed her resignation voluntary as a matter of law.

Takeaways

While the presumption that employees who resign do so voluntarily can be viewed as an employer-friendly legal standard, the 3rd Circuit’s analysis under the newly adopted framework suggests a fact-intensive inquiry that should make employers tread carefully when presenting an employee with the option to resign in the face of serious charges.

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

Category:       ABSENCE MANAGEMENT & REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION,

By Brent I. ClarkJames L. CurtisAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: This week at the 2018 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress the speakers on this Executive Forum noted that “automation, wearables, augmented reality, virtual reality, drones, big data, machine learning, the Internet of Things – emerging technologies are now almost too numerous to keep track of.”  This Executive Forum offered an in-depth look at the tools and trends that organizations are beginning to adopt and provided some practical comments for EHS professionals who need to prepare themselves for a changing safety environment.  The session was presented by Michelle Garner-Janna, CSP, CPE, Executive Director – Corporate Health & Safety, at Cummins, and Lydia Boyd Campbell, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer, at IBM.

In her presentation Garner-Janna noted that Cummins is a global power leader with 60,000 employees spread around the world in 190 countries.  The company has worked to develop its health and safety programs for what she deemed “Industry 4.0”, advanced systems which incorporate (1) a secure network; (2) standard safety core systems; (3) Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity; (4) advanced technology mobile virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR); and (5) big data advanced analytical systems.  An example of the Industry 4.0 at work is the company’s Powered Industrial Vehicle Positioning System, known as Essensium.  The Essensium System is an automated and augmented reality system used to move unmanned powered industrial trucks through warehouses in materials handling and storage functions.

Garner-Janna explained the Industry 4.0 systems being explored are exoskeletons and wearable technology.  The company is also currently trying out a VR system to provide health and safety training at a facility in China.

Campbell indicated that IBM has 380,000 employees.  Health and Safety personnel represent less than 6% of those employees onsite, and there is one H&S employee for every 1000 employees.  To compensate for reduced safety staffing, IBM’s H&S services group has been developing an integrated artificial intelligence system based on its “Watson” application.  With this system, the company has set-up a World-wide H&S call center in India that receives telephone calls and emails relating to safety and health concerns, translates the many languages, and routes the issues to “the right people” to work on resolution.  The Watson based system is also analysing the “tone” of callers’ voices to make sure that potentially high level of stress or problems are escalated appropriately.  The system is also now being reprogrammed to flag and handle personally sensitive data that employees may try to submit.

The emerging technologies and issues raised by speakers from Cummins and IBM demonstrate the changing nature of the safety environment and opportunities for safety professionals and employers to incorporate changing technology and big data into their approaches to protect employees.  These developments should be closely monitored by employers.

We have previously blogged on automation and issues related to the future of safety technology, including Future Enterprise – Workplace Safety Compliance Comes to the Forefront for Expanding Healthcare Industry, A Global Perspective on the Future of Wearable Technology, An Aging America and the Future of Paid Family Leave, and Robotics, Automation, and Employee Safety for the Future Employer.

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 Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Paul Galligan and Tara Ellis

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers Continue to Labor over Pregnancy Accommodations.

Earlier this month, Plaintiff Caroline Ruiz filed suit in the Southern District of New York against her former employer New Avon LLC, contending that Avon failed to accommodate her high risk pregnancy, and instead hastily terminated her employment upon learning she was pregnant. Caroline Ruiz v. New Avon LLC, et al., 1:18-cv-09033. Ruiz, the former Global Head of North America Indirect Procurement at New Avon LLC, contends that she requested to work from home after her doctor recommended bed-rest for a week, because Ruiz had a high risk pregnancy. However, according to Ruiz’s complaint, Avon callously disregarded this recommendation, forced Ruiz to come into the office, and terminated her, due to fabricated performance issues.

The case raises some interesting questions, including, whether a pregnant employee’s request to work from home due to her doctor’s recommendation of bed rest is a reasonable accommodation, and whether the answer to this question changes based upon the nature of the employee’s job, the length of the anticipated bed-rest and the classification of the employee’s pregnancy as high risk.

We will continue to watch this case, and will keep you posted of any developments.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Linda Schoonmaker and John P. Phillips

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the use of the N-Word in the workplace one time is sufficient to trigger a hostile work environment. Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit held that an employer may be held liable for workplace harassment when the plaintiff admitted that she did not complain of harassment until her final day of employment (and when the employer alleged that the plaintiff never complained of harassment). In light of this decision, and in light of the increased focus on workplace harassment over the past year, employers should use this case as an opportunity to review their No Harassment Policies and update their employment law training—to proactively ensure that harassing conduct does not occur in their workplaces.

When faced with allegations of a hostile work environment, employers often rely on two defenses: First, in order to be actionable, a hostile work environment must be both “subjectively” and “objectively” hostile. In other words, the plaintiff must subjectively perceive the harassment to be abusive, and the work environment must be one “that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.” Over the years, courts have typically required multiple instances of inappropriate or harassing behavior, in order to meet this standard. Second, if the harassing behavior was committed by co-workers, the plaintiff must have complained of the harassment. In other words, the employer must have knowledge of the harassing conduct (either actual or implied—companies cannot hide their heads in the sand) before it can be held liable.

In a recent decision, however, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that use of the N-Word on one occasion could create a hostile work environment, and the Court held that the employer could be held liable even though the plaintiff admitted that she never complained about alleged harassment until (allegedly) right before her termination. (In fact, the company denied that she ever complained at all.)

Given the increased media focus on workplace harassment, this case provides a good opportunity for employers to review their anti-harassment policies and procedures, in order to proactively ensure that harassment-related issues do not proliferate in the workplace.

Background on the Case

In Smelter v. Southern Home Care Services, Inc., the plaintiff had been hired by Southern Home Care Services in July 2013 as a customer service supervisor. As part of her job, the plaintiff was responsible for coordinating with caregivers and clients, scheduling in-home visits, and accurately recording all caregivers’ work time. There was no dispute that the plaintiff required extra training and committed many mistakes during her employment. In September 2013, she was terminated for poor performance, after a final incident in which she got in a heated argument with and yelled at a co-worker. Following her termination, the plaintiff asserted the following allegations:

  • She had endured racist remarks from her co-workers nearly every day during her employment.
  • During the argument with her co-worker on the last day of her employment, her co-worker had called her a “dumb black [N-Word].”
  • Her co-workers had made derogatory comments about black men, black women, President Obama, and compared the plaintiff with a monkey from the movie Planet of the Apes.
  • Her supervisor thought the racist comments were funny.

Although the plaintiff admitted that she had never complained about any of the comments prior to the final incident, the plaintiff alleged that she had told her supervisor about the harassment before she was terminated. Her supervisor claimed that she never complained about any race-related comments, and the plaintiff’s exit interview paperwork—which both the plaintiff and her supervisor signed—had no mention of any harassment-related complaints.

Ultimately, the district court granted summary judgment for the company, finding that the harassment the plaintiff allegedly experienced was not sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment, as a matter of law, and that the company had no knowledge of the alleged harassment. The plaintiff appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Opinion

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim. In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit made two significant holdings:

First, the Court held that even standing alone, the single use of the N-Word was sufficient to constitute severe harassment. The Court explained:

Southern Home argues that [the co-worker]’s “one-time use” of [the N-Word] was insufficient to establish severity as a matter of law. We strongly disagree. This Court has observed that the use of this word is particularly egregious when directed toward a person in an offensive or humiliating manner.

The Court also held that the other comments alleged by the plaintiffs were similarly sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment, and consequently, the plaintiff had alleged a legally actionable hostile work environment claim.

Second, the Court disagreed with the district court that the employer did not have knowledge of the alleged harassment. Although it was undisputed that the plaintiff failed to report any harassment until the final day of her employment (and the company disputed whether she had even reported it then), the plaintiff had alleged that the racist slurs were “funny to everybody that worked in the . . . office,” including her supervisor. The Court found that this was sufficient evidence to hold that the supervisor had knowledge of the comments, since she could not have found the comments funny if she did not hear them.

Thus, the Court found that the plaintiff had alleged an actionable hostile work environment claim, and it remanded the case to the district court for trial.

Takeaways

In light of this decision and the increased awareness of improper workplace conduct stemming from the #MeToo movement, there are a number of proactive steps that employers can take to help ensure that their companies have the proper culture to avoid harassment complaints and allegations:

  • Review and revise, if necessary, the No Harassment Policy. Most companies have No Harassment Policies (and if your company doesn’t, it should). However, often those policies have not been updated in a number of years. Now is a good time to pull out the policy, review it, and make any necessary updates, including ensuring that there are clear, and multiple, avenues for employees to report harassment.
  • Train your managers and supervisors. Your supervisors are your most effective buffer against employment law-related allegations and lawsuits, and they serve as a conduit between the company and its employees. Managers and supervisors should get regular anti-harassment and other employment-law based training, in order to ensure that they will know when harassment is occurring and will know what to do if they spot inappropriate conduct.
  • Focus on proper documentation. In conjunction with training your supervisors and managers, documentation issues should be covered. To defend any lawsuit, you must have good documentation. Your supervisors should be trained on correctly documenting all employment actions.
  • Promptly investigate and correct any complaints of harassment. Once the company is aware of any improper harassment-related conduct, whether from a direct complaint or an observation in the workplace, the company must take prompt and appropriate action. In doing so, it is important to take all allegations and complaints of harassment in the workplace seriously, immediately perform a thorough and complete investigation of any harassment complaints, and implement swift, appropriate, and proportional remedial action, if necessary, including possible termination or suspension.

Over the past year, workplace harassment issues have increasingly grabbed headlines. While all employers can agree that use of the N-Word is especially egregious, employers must take steps to ensure that such conduct does not occur. More importantly, employers must ensure that they have the policies and procedures in place to prove that such conduct did not occur. This means having an up-to-date No Harassment Policy, and supervisors and managers who are well-trained on anti-harassment and proper investigation methods. By proactively addressing any workplace harassment issues head-on, employers can put themselves in the best possible position to defend any subsequent lawsuit.

By Mark A. Lies, II,  Brent I. ClarkAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: OSHA has just issued a Standard Interpretation clarifying the Obama-era guidance that prohibited incentive programs and circumscribed post-incident drug testing; “Clarification of OSHA’s Position on Workplace Safety Incentive Programs and Post-Incident Drug Testing Under 29 C.F.R. §1904.35(b)(1)(iv).”

We previously blogged about OSHA’s 2016 retaliation regulation and associated guidance, which had explained examples of post-accident drug-testing and safety incentive as instances of unlawful retaliation.  OSHA’s 2016 retaliation rule left employers uncertain about what programs were permissible and whether they would face citations for long-standing safety programs aimed at encouraging safe behaviors and reducing injury rates.

  1. OSHA’s Revised Perspective is Apparent in the New Standard Interpretation

OSHA’s new Standard Interpretation intends to “to clarify the Department’s position that [the rule] does not prohibit workplace safety incentive programs or post-incident drug testing. The Department believes that many employers who implement safety incentive programs and/or conduct post-incident drug testing do so to promote workplace safety and health.” The Interpretation explains that “evidence that the employer consistently enforces legitimate work rules (whether or not an injury or illness is reported) would demonstrate that the employer is serious about creating a culture of safety, not just the appearance of reducing rates.”

Post-incident drug testing policies and safety incentive programs will be considered retaliatory and unlawful only where they seek “to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health.” Properly formulated and lawful post-incident drug testing policies and safety incentive programs will be permitted and will not result in OSHA citations.

  1. OSHA Permits Consistent Post-Incident Drug Testing Policies

For years, OSHA’s position on post-incident drug testing confounded employers, and employers faced complicated questions in the hours following workplace safety incidents. The Standard Interpretation clarifies that “most instances of workplace drug testing are permissible,” including:

  • “Random drug testing”;
  • “Drug testing unrelated to the reporting of a work-related injury or illness”;
  • “Drug testing under a state workers’ compensation law”;
  • “Drug testing under other federal law, such as a U.S. Department of Transportation rule”; and
  • “Drug testing to evaluate the root cause of a workplace incident that harmed or could have harmed employees.  If the employer chooses to use drug testing to investigate the incident, the employer should test all employees whose conduct could have contributed to the incident, not just employees who reported injuries.”

Accordingly, employers may lawfully implement, random drug testing programs, DOT drug testing programs, drug testing programs under a Collective Bargaining Agreement, and post-incident (also “post-accident”) drug-testing programs. Post-incident drug testing should be conducted consistently on any employee whose conduct may have contributed to the accident, and not merely the employee who was injured in an accident. For example, if a forklift operator collides with a pedestrian and injures the pedestrian, both the operator and pedestrian should be drug tested. OSHA reiterates that employers may not use a post-injury drug testing program, which the Agency views as retaliatory and also exposes employers to worker’s compensation retaliation tort claims.

3.         OSHA Permits Safety Incentive Programs

The Standard Interpretation reverses course on the 2016 retaliation regulation’s prohibition of safety programs. With limited adjustments, OSHA now permits employers to bring back reporting-based safety programs, which the Standard Interpretation lauds as an “important tool to promote workplace safety and health.” The Standard Interpretation permits a program which offers a prize or bonus at the end of an injury-free month. OSHA’s new position thus permits employers to bring back cash bonuses or the much-maligned monthly pizza party. The Standard Interpretation also permits programs that evaluate managers based on their work unit’s lack of injuries.

However, to lawfully implement such a safety program, the employer must implement “adequate precautions” to ensure that employees feel free to report an injury or illness and are not discouraged from reporting. According to OSHA, a mere statement that employees are encouraged to report and will not face retaliation is insufficient. Employers need to undertake their choice of additional “adequate precautions,” such as:

  • “An incentive program that rewards employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace;”
  • “A training program for all employees to reinforce reporting rights and responsibilities and emphasizes the employer’s non-retaliation policy;” or
  • “A mechanism for accurately evaluating employees’ willingness to report injuries and illnesses.”

The Standard Interpretation thus permits and encourages safety incentive programs that reward employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace. A second precaution, a brief training on reporting illnesses and injuries, would be simple for employers to conduct and add to onboarding for new hires. The “mechanism for accurately evaluating employees willingness to report” could be a regularly scheduled, random questionnaire on employee willingness to report injuries and illnesses. Accordingly, if employers adopt these low-burden precautionary measures, they may bring back or now adopt safety programs that are popular and effective at reducing workplace injury rates.

For related information on drug testing requirements, we had blogged on the recent Department of Transportation (DOT) final rule amending its drug testing program for DOT-regulated employers.

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