By Dawn Reddy Solowey and Latoya R. Laing

Seyfarth Synopsis: The 8th Circuit recently held that while a request for a religious accommodation  may qualify as a protected activity, it is not necessarily “oppositional” so as to give rise to an opposition-clause retaliation claim under Title VII. Employers considering requests for religious accommodation should, despite this Circuit’s narrow decision, proceed carefully when considering any request.

Last year we blogged about a Minnesota District Court’s decision holding that a religious accommodation request did not constitute a protected activity under Title VII. The plaintiff appealed the ruling.  On November 13, 2018, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that it could not “categorically” resolve whether a request for religious accommodation is oppositional activity for a retaliation claim, but that it would affirm the ruling for the employer on the summary judgment record in this case.

Case Background

The case is EEOC v. North Memorial Health Care, Civ. No. 17-2926 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (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. The District Court agreed, granting summary judgment in favor of the employer.  The EEOC appealed, joined by amicus curiae that included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

What Did the Court Rule?

The 8th Circuit explained that it was considering an “issue of first impression,” namely whether “requests for religious accommodation are protected activity under Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision.”  The Court held that “the issue cannot be resolved categorically,” but affirmed the district court’s ruling on the summary judgment record in this case, holding that the applicant’s simple request for a religious accommodation was not “oppositional” activity as required for Title VII retaliation claims.

Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee or an applicant for employment because the employee opposed an unlawful employment practice. To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, the EEOC was required to show that the applicant opposed an unlawful practice.

The Court relied on the Supreme Court case Crawford v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville and Davidson Cty. 555 U.S. 271 (2009), emphasizing that when an employee communicates to the employer a belief that the employer had engaged in discrimination, that communication almost always constitutes the employee’s opposition to the activity.

However, in this case, the Court held that the applicant’s actions were not oppositional because “merely requesting a religious accommodation is not the same as opposing the allegedly unlawful denial of a religious accommodation.”

While the Court generally construes the statute “broadly to cover opposition to employment actions that are not unlawful,” the plaintiff’s request for religious accommodation, by itself, “did not reflect, much less communicate, any opposition or resistance to any North Memorial employment practice.”

The Court explained that at least for religious accommodation claims, “protected activity” is not always “oppositional activity.”  The Court held that in some circumstances, a religious accommodation request could form the basis for a retaliation claim, such as if an employer denied an accommodation on the grounds that it was not in fact based on a religious practice and fired the employee for making the request.  However, when the employee or applicant requests a religious accommodation, and the request is denied on the grounds that it cannot reasonably be accommodated absent undue hardship, there is no basis for an opposition-clause retaliation claim.  Instead, the employee or applicant’s exclusive claim is a disparate impact or disparate treatment claim under Title VII.

Finally, the Court noted that the applicant’s original EEOC charge had included a claim of disparate treatment.  However, the EEOC’s enforcement action alleged only unlawful retaliation.  Thus, while the Court held that the applicant’s “Title VII remedy as an unsuccessful job applicant was a disparate treatment claim under [the statute] for failure to reasonably accommodation,” there was in this case no disparate-treatment claim before the Court.

What Does This Case Signal for Employers Defending Retaliation Litigation?

In defending a retaliation claim, an employer should consider whether, in the relevant jurisdiction, there is a viable argument in its jurisdiction that a request for religious accommodation is not sufficient to establish protected activity as a matter of law.  This issue was one of first impression in the Eighth Circuit, and different courts are likely to reach different conclusions.  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?

Employers should follow a conservative approach in responding to religious accommodation requests.  Employers would be wise to assume — until there is settled, binding law to the contrary in the relevant jurisdiction on identical facts  — 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.  Further, an unlawful denial of a religious accommodation request can give rise to a disparate-treatment discrimination claim, even if there is no available retaliation claim.

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 authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Michael L. DeMarino, and Rebecca S. Bjork

Seyfarth Synopsis: Although back pay has been awarded in Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) cases for quite some time, few courts have specifically addressed whether these damages are discretionary or mandatory.  In EEOC v. Baltimore County., No. 16-2216, 2018 WL 4472062, at *1 (4th Cir. Sept. 19, 2018), the Fourth Circuit answered this straightforward question and held that retroactive monetary awards, such as back pay, are mandatory legal remedies under the ADEA. Because the ADEA incorporates the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that make back pay mandatory, the Fourth Circuit concluded that district courts lack discretion to deny back pay once ADEA liability is established. The key takeaway from this decision is that now more than ever, employers should take steps to minimize exposure to ADEA violations and, if ADEA liability is established, to explore available set offs to back pay awards.

Background

In EEOC v. Baltimore County, the EEOC brought a lawsuit on behalf of two retired corrections officers and a group of similarly-situated employees at least 40 years of age. The EEOC alleged that the County’s pension plan, known as the Employee Retirement System (“ERS”), required older employees to pay more toward their retirement than younger employees, for the same retirement benefits.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the EEOC, finding that because the different contribution rates charged to different employees is explained by age rather than pension status, age is the “but-for” cause of the disparate treatment, and the ERS violated the ADEA. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed and remanded the case to the district court for consideration of damages. We previously blogged about the district court’s decision here and the Fourth Circuit’s decision here.

On remand, the district court considered the EEOC’s claims for retroactive monetary relief –  which was in the form of back pay. Ultimately, the district court rejected the EEOC’s bid for these damages, concluding that it had the discretion under the enforcement provision of the ADEA, 29 U.S.C. § 626(b), to wholly deny back pay. Thereafter, the EEOC appealed.

The Fourth Circuit’s  Decision

On appeal, the County argued that the district court properly exercised its discretion under the ADEA, 28 U.S.C. § 626(b), to deny the EEOC an award of back pay. The Fourth Circuit rejected this contention. Instead, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the EEOC that because back pay is a mandatory legal remedy under the FLSA, and because the ADEA incorporates the FLSA’s liability provisions, the district court lacked the discretion to decline to award back pay.

Specifically, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that “[b]ecause Congress adopted the enforcement procedures and remedies of the FLSA into the ADEA, we construe the ADEA consistent with the cited statutory language in and judicial interpretations of the FLSA.” Id. at *3.  “Back pay,” the Fourth Circuit continued, “is, and was at the time Congress passed the ADEA, a mandatory legal remedy under the FLSA.” Id. The Fourth Circuit reinforced this conclusion, noting that the ADEA’s “legislative history further suggests that Congress consciously chose to incorporate the powers, remedies, and procedures of the FLSA into the ADEA.” Id.

Implication For Employers:

This long-running case demonstrates the complexities and potential pitfalls employers face while trying to navigate the ADEA. Employers should take care to review and consider their justifications for retirement plans that have variable contribution rates for employees based on age.  More broadly, this decision demonstrates that damages for ADEA violations can quickly add up if back pay awards are permanently on the table.

By Oluwafunmito (“Funto”) P. Seton and Linda Schoonmaker

Seyfarth Synopsis: In recent years, a body of law has developed surrounding pattern or practice lawsuits brought by the EEOC. This has helped to clarify, for example, when the 300-day filing cutoff applies, or whether the claimant is eligible for damages as opposed to just equitable relief. In a recent decision out of the Western District of Oklahoma, yet another court has expanded the breadth of knowledge surrounding EEOC pattern or practice lawsuits, explaining that the continuing violation exception can toll Section 706’s timely filing requirement.

Case Background

Horizontal Well Drillers (“HWD”), is an oil and gas drilling company. Between January 1, 2012, through June 30, 2014, job applicants to HWD were required to submit information on age, family and personal health history, doctors’ care status, prescription drug use, and other health inquiries. HWD also sought information regarding applicants’ workers’ compensation histories, preferring to hire people with no history of workers’ compensation injuries or claims.

Wilbert Glover (Plaintiff-Intervenor), applied for a drilling position with HWD on January 11, 2013. He passed the rigorous health and background screenings and the HWD doctor who conducted his new hire medical exam concluded that he was medically qualified to perform the job. HWD, however, terminated Mr. Glover’s employment shortly after completing his new hire medical exam because of his high blood pressure.

Mr. Glover filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on or around April 1, 2013, alleging that his termination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”). The EEOC requested relevant records from HWD and expanded the scope of the investigation to include all applicants hired and not hired from January 1, 2012 through June 30, 2014. (Notably, June 30, 2014 was also when HWD removed the “Applicant and Family Health, Worker’s Compensation, and Disability Pension history questions” from its application.) After its investigation, the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that HWD violated the ADA, GINA, Title VII, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”).

Consequently, the EEOC (as Plaintiff) filed a class action lawsuit against HWD alleging various claims, including (i) pattern or practice of discriminatory failure to hire in violation of the ADEA; (ii) pattern or practice of discriminatory failure to hire in violation of the ADA; (iii) unlawful disability inquiry in conducting workers’ compensation background checks, in violation of the ADA; and (iv) unlawful post-hire medical exam, in violation of the ADA. Thereafter, Glover intervened as a party, alleging claims under the ADA and GINA.

HWD filed a motion to dismiss on various grounds. Our discussion focuses on HWD’s argument that the 300-day limitations period should bar recovery for putative class members who allege ADA failures to hire before June 5, 2012 and from putative class members who allege ADEA failures to hire before February 7, 2014.

A primer on HWD’s limitations argument

Title VII — 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1) (“Section 706”) (and which the ADA and ADEA follow on this point) — states that a charge of discrimination shall be filed within 300 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice has occurred.

Because Mr. Glover filed his charge with the EEOC on April 1, 2013, HWD argued that to obtain relief, any purported class member must have experienced discrimination within 300 days of that date, i.e. June 5, 2012, at the earliest. According to HWD, any alleged discrimination occurring prior to that date was time-barred and argued a number of other procedural reasons why the EEOC’s claims were not appropriate. The EEOC took the opposite position, arguing that it was alleging a “pattern or practice” of discrimination on behalf of aggrieved individuals. And, because this was a continuing violation, the June 5, 2012 cutoff did not apply. [Recall that if the “continuing violation” doctrine applied, individuals who experienced discrimination prior to the 300-day cutoff could still obtain relief through the EEOC’s claim if part of the violation fell within the 300-day window.]

The Court’s analysis of HWD’s limitations argument

The District Court reached three distinct conclusions – all in favor of the EEOC:

First, the Court held that while Sections 706 and 707 were intended to address different forms of discrimination with unique remedies, the EEOC can use a pattern or practice theory to recover on behalf of aggrieved individuals under both Sections.

Second, the Court agreed with the EEOC that the continuing violation exception can toll Section 706’s timely filing requirement for pattern-or-practice claims.

Finally, although it was too early to determine whether the EEOC met its burden of proving that HWD’s conduct was indeed a continuing violation, the Court determined that the EEOC’s claim survived HWD’s motion to dismiss for two reasons:

  • The subject matter of the discrimination remain unchanged with regard to the ADA claim: the EEOC alleged that HWD used applicants’ workers’ compensation history to perpetuate a pattern or practice of discriminatory failure to hire based on disability. Similarly, the subject matter of the discrimination also remained unchanged with regard to the ADEA claim – the EEOC alleged that HWD subjected applicants to improper hiring practices based on their age (40 and above).
  • The discrimination occurred frequently – the EEOC alleged that HWD routinely performed these background searches on all applicants before the interview and hired applicants with significantly lower workers compensation injury and claims histories. The EEOC also alleged frequency with regard to HWD’s failure to hire applicants who were 40 or older.

It remains to be seen whether the EEOC would meet its burden to demonstrate that there was indeed, a continuing violation. But for now, the Court has denied HWD’s motions to dismiss claims of EEOC class members for ADA failures to hire before June 5, 2012 and for ADEA failures to hire before February 7, 2014.

Takeaways for Employers

This is an important decision for employers, especially those sued in the Tenth Circuit as this could result in a significant increase in the number of aggrieved individuals who claim membership in an EEOC pattern-or-practice class. Employers are also now potentially exposed to a wider range of relief (including compensatory and punitive damages) – not merely equitable relief – for pattern and practice suits brought by the EEOC.

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

By Jennifer L. Mora

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently settled lawsuits with two employers it claims violated the Americans with Disabilities Act after rejecting a job applicant and terminating an employee based on their prescription drug use.

The opioid crisis is dominating the news. And, employers have reason to be concerned. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, overdoses from the non-medical use of drugs or alcohol while on the job increased from 165 in 2015 to 217 in 2016, a 32-percent increase. That same report showed that overdose fatalities have increased by at least 25 percent annually since 2012. Further, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently stated that use of prescription opioids can result in serious issues with addiction and that in 2014, nearly two million Americans either abused or were dependent on prescription opioid pain relievers.

However, employers should tread carefully when addressing any prescription drug use in the workplace. It has long been the case that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state disability discrimination laws provide protections to applicants and employees taking prescription medication, including opioids, and regulate the right of an employer to inquire about such use. Two recent settlements with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) highlight a few common issues facing employers.

The Settlements

In one case, the EEOC brought suit against a pre-school that allegedly terminated an afterschool teacher after he disclosed his prior opioid addiction and his participation in a supervised medication-assisted treatment program. As part of his treatment, he was legally prescribed Suboxone, which is a prescription used to treat adults who are dependent on, or addicted to, opioids. The EEOC claimed the school terminated the teacher 30 minutes into his first work day because of his use of this medication. The EEOC claimed that the failure of the school to conduct an individualized assessment to determine what, if any, impact the drug had on the teacher’s ability to perform his job violated the ADA. As part of the settlement, which required a $5,000 payment to the teacher, the EEOC required the school to, among other things:

  • Amend its written drug use policy to include a clear and specific exclusion to the policy for individuals who use legally-obtained prescription medication in a lawfully-prescribed manner.
  • Create an ADA-compliant procedure for conducting an individualized assessment of an employee who is enrolled in any form of alcohol, drug, or illegal substance rehabilitation program in order to determine whether the employee can safely perform the essential functions of his or her position with or without reasonable accommodation.

In another case, the EEOC alleged the employer withdrew an applicant’s job offer based on a positive drug test result for prescription medication. The EEOC also alleged the employer maintained an unlawful policy requiring all employees to report if they were taking any prescription and nonprescription medication. Both actions, according to the EEOC, violated the ADA. The parties settled for $45,000, with a requirement that the employer adopt company-wide policies to prevent future hiring issues under the ADA and only require employees to report prescription medications if the employer has a “reasonable suspicion” that the medication may be affecting performance.

Takeaways for Employers

These settlements serve as a reminder that employers should avoid making adverse decisions based on misperceptions or a lack of information about the effect of lawful prescription drug use on their employees’ ability to perform their job duties. In general, employees have a protected right to use prescribed controlled substances and come to work unless such use creates an undue risk of harm or presents a safety issue. Moreover, employers should take precautions before implementing blanket drug-testing policies that do not account for the need under the ADA to engage in an interactive process with individuals taking prescription medications and, if necessary, provide reasonable accommodations. Employers also should consider revising any workplace policy that requires employees to disclose their prescription medication use, unless there is reason to believe the medication may impact performance, or otherwise suggests that employees taking such medication will be treated in a certain way without regard to whether their drug use impacts their work.

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

 

By Michael Fleischer, Jean Wilson, and Barry Miller

Synopsis: Massachusetts Attorney General investigates 70 employers (both large and small – across all industries), citing 21 of them for violating the state’s “ban the box” law, which prohibits most businesses from asking about job candidates’ criminal backgrounds on initial employment applications.

Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy announced that her office conducted an investigation into the employment applications of more than 70 Boston-area businesses to determine if they violated the Commonwealth’s “ban the box” law. That law prohibits most employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history on initial applications, subject to limited exceptions. The employers investigated ranged from a restaurant chain to a skin care company to a book store.

The Attorney General entered into agreements with four large employers that have multiple locations in Massachusetts. In conjunction with those agreements, three of the companies were fined $5,000 each, and all were required to alter their application process to comply with the law’s requirements. The Attorney General also sent warning letters to an additional 17 employers, noting that they must take immediate steps to comply with Massachusetts law, and remove questions on their initial job applications that ask questions about applicants’ criminal histories. The improper questions included whether applicants have been convicted of violating the law, whether they had been convicted of a crime or offense other than a minor traffic violation, and if they have ever been convicted of a felony.

The Attorney General’s announcement of this enforcement activity comes on the heels of the Commonwealth’s recent passage of a criminal justice reform bill that becomes effective on October 13, 2018, and further restricts the questions that an employer may ask about an applicant’s criminal history following an initial employment application.

The Attorney General stated that the investigation was part of a larger, ongoing effort by her office to help educate businesses about the law, and to ensure that an individual’s criminal history is not used improperly to deny access to employment. This serves as a reminder to employers to review their hiring-related documents to ensure compliance with evolving legal requirements. Even if applicants do not complain about violations or assert legal claims, the Attorney General is engaged in proactive efforts to make sure that employers in the Commonwealth comply.

If you would like further information, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Background Screening Compliance & Litigation Team.

 

By Brian A. Wadsworth

Seyfarth Synopsis: In her appeal to the Fifth Circuit, Plaintiff Bonnie O’Daniel argues that the trial court wrongly concluded that it was unreasonable for O’Daniel to believe that a complaint about discrimination based on sexual orientation constituted a protected activity. The EEOC recently joined the fray by filing an amicus curiae brief, which argues that it was reasonable for O’Daniel to believe that opposition to sexual orientation discrimination constituted protected activity.

The EEOC argues that O’Daniel need only “reasonably believe[]” the opposed conduct was unlawful and that O’Daniel’s belief was reasonable when viewed in the context of recent decisions reached by the Southern District of Texas, Second Circuit, Seventh Circuit, and the EEOC. The EEOC also cites the ongoing national debate regarding sexual orientation issues as another reason O’Daniel’s belief was reasonable.

Plaintiff Bonnie O’Daniel filed suit against her employer, Plant-N-Power, and its parent company (Defendants) in the Middle District of Louisiana alleging, amongst other things, retaliation on the basis of her sexual orientation—heterosexual. O’Daniel alleged that Defendants terminated her employment because of one of her Facebook posts. In the post, she included a photograph of a man wearing a dress at a Target store and expressed discontent with his ability to use the women’s restroom and/or dressing rooms. O’Daniel alleged that this offended the President of Plant-N-Power, a member of the LGBT community, and that the president subsequently suggested O’Daniel’s termination.

Defendants responded to the lawsuit with a motion to dismiss and argued that O’Daniel’s retaliation claim failed in part because she did not “plead any protected activity … under Title VII.” By consent of the parties, a magistrate judge heard Defendants’ motion to dismiss. The magistrate judge ultimately agreed with Defendants and dismissed O’Daniel’s retaliation claim because it was “unreasonable for [O’Daniel] to believe that discrimination based on sexual orientation constitutes protected activity” and cited the Fifth Circuit’s 1979 holding in Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp. to support its holding. The trial court noted that while Title VII may protect gender-non-conformity, O’Daniel did not allege discrimination on this basis. O’Daniel appealed the magistrate judge’s decision to the Fifth Circuit.

On May 2, 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus curiae brief with the court, taking issue with the trial court’s finding that it was “unreasonable” for O’Daniel to believe that opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation was a protected activity. In arguing this, the EEOC pointed out that the employee need only “reasonably believe[] the opposed conduct was unlawful.” The EEOC maintains that, “given recent appellate decisions …, the EEOC’s view that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, and the rapidly changing legal landscape,” O’Daniel had a reasonable belief that discrimination based on sexual orientation was impermissible.

The EEOC pointed to a number of decisions in the Southern District of Texas, the Second and Seventh Circuits, as well as holdings from the commission itself, to demonstrate that the “law on sexual orientation discrimination” had evolved and that at least some courts prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment. In addition, the EEOC noted the ongoing national debate regarding sexual orientation issues and the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions endorsing the right of gay and lesbian individuals to be free from discrimination in Obergefell v. Hodges and United States v. Windsor. Given this context, O’Daniel—“a layperson without legal expertise”—could “reasonably conclude that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination encompasses discriminatory conduct based on sexual orientation.” This would extend, in the EEOC’s view, to discrimination on the basis that an employee is heterosexual.

The EEOC similarly noted that Fifth Circuit precedent did not preclude an individual from harboring a reasonable belief that sexual orientation is unlawful. To argue this, the EEOC distinguished Blum, in which the Court held that “[d]ischarge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII.” The EEOC argued that Blum was decided on the issue of pretext and not on whether Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Moreover, according to the EEOC, there were post-Blum decisions that recognize that Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex stereotyping, to include Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins and EEOC v. Boh Brothers Construction, Co. Thus, O’Daniel could have relied on these post-Blum holdings to arrive at a reasonable conclusion that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Defendants have not yet filed their appellate brief.

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

By: Scott Rabe, Sam Schwartz-Fenwick, Marlin Duro

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In a largely symbolic ruling, in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a cake shop owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple based on his religious beliefs.  By limiting its holding to the facts of the case, however, the Court sidestepped an opportunity to delineate the intersection between free expression of religion and LGBT rights.  As a result, the decision provides little in the way of guidance to employers regarding the role of free expression of religion in the workplace.

In the highly anticipated decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case closely followed by the media, religious rights advocates, and gay rights advocates alike, the Supreme Court delicately avoided making a decision that could be declared a victory by either side.  Instead, the majority emphasized that the holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop was limited to the facts of the case and that further clarification as to the boundaries between religious rights and LGBT rights would have to play out in the courts.

The Case

Charlie Craig and David Mullins were looking to celebrate their marriage by purchasing a custom wedding cake at Masterpiece Cakeshop, a bakery in Colorado.  Jack Phillips, the owner of the bakery refused to make the wedding cake for the couple because of his religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

The couple filed a Charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the “Commission”), claiming that the baker’s refusal was in violation of the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which makes it “a discriminatory practice and unlawful for a person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from, or deny to an individual or group because of  . . . sexual orientation, . . . the full and equal enjoyment of the goods [and] services” of “any place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services . . . to the public.”  The owner of the bakery, however, maintained that the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion protected his refusal to make custom wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

The Commission found in favor of the couple and determined that the actions of the bakery violated Colorado law.  Phillips appealed the Commission’s decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Commission’s ruling.

After the Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, Phillips appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Colorado Court of Appeals and found the Commission had violated Phillips’ First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.

In its decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the case presented “difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles,” one, the authority of the State “to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services” and two, the “right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment.”  While acknowledging the tension between these two principles, the Court did not seek to reconcile them.

Instead, the Court first found the creation of wedding cakes was a “creative” endeavor implicating freedom of expression under the First Amendment, not merely selling a good which might not implicate the First Amendment.

The Court then explained that as Phillips’ refusal to bake  of a wedding cake implicated the First Amendment’s freedom of expression and free exercise of religion clauses, the Commission was obligated to weigh the cake shop owner’s First Amendment rights against the rights of the gay couple. Instead of performing this balancing with “the neutrality that the Constitution requires”, the Court found the Commission exhibited hostility toward Phillips’ beliefs throughout the hearing, making disparaging comments about his religious beliefs and treating the cake shop owner’s case differently than other cases addressed by the Commission involving cake shop owners with different beliefs.  The Court found that this treatment of Phillips’ case violated the First Amendment as it indicated a hostility to a religion or religious viewpoints.

The Court took great care to underscore that the holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop was limited to the facts of that case, stating that “[t]he outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context that this disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

The Takeaway for Employers

Many anticipated that the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop would provide employers and small-business owners with guidance on how to lawfully traverse the landmines that arise when religious beliefs conflict with civil rights statutes. By restricting the decision to the facts, the Court did not provide this guidance.

As such, employers, need not and should not change their EEO or other employment practices, policies, and trainings in light of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. Masterpiece Cakeshop does not place rights to the free exercise of religion over LGBT rights or other civil rights, and therefore employers should not take action that elevates the right to free exercise of religion within the workplace.

As always, we invite employers to reach out to their Seyfarth contact for solutions and recommendations regarding anti-harassment and EEO policies, addressing compliance with LGBT issues in the law, and tackling questions regarding the free exercise of religion in the workplace.

By Kevin A. Fritz

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Supreme Court’s decline of a Seventh Circuit appellate decision solidifies that where an employee is medically unable to return to work within a very short time period following a leave of absence, the employer has no additional federal legal obligation to provide additional leave, or hold the employee’s job open.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court declined review of a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision establishing a rule that leave of more than a few weeks in duration falls outside an employers’ reasonable accommodation obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case is Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.

Plaintiff took Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave for multiple herniated discs in his back. He notified his employer that he was scheduled for back surgery the same day his FMLA leave expired, and he requested another three months of medical leave to allow him to return to work. The employer denied this request and discharged his employment. Plaintiff sued, claiming that his employer failed to provide reasonable accommodation by denying him the additional leave.

What is interesting about this case is that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus brief in support of Plaintiff’s claims. The agency argued that any fixed period of post-FMLA leave can constitute a reasonable accommodation the ADA, and that employers have the burden of demonstrating this additional leave poses an undue hardship.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the argument, affirming summary judgment for the employer. In its decision, the Court concluded that leave requests beyond FMLA that extend for more than a brief period of time are never required under the ADA. The Court never answered the question of whether the additional leave request constituted an undue hardship because once it found that employees who are unable to perform their duties for extended periods of time are “not qualified” as defined by the ADA, the inquiry stops.

Now, the Supreme Court’s decline to review this holding establishes that, at least in the Seventh Circuit, employers do not have to provide significant additional leave following expiration under the FMLA because doing so would convert the ADA to a medical leave entitlement statute. Which it is not. The Seventh Circuit stands in opposition to four other federal appellate circuits and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which treat leave in the same manner as any other requested medical accommodation. Other appellate courts, including the Fourth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit have not litigated this issue up to the appellate level.

As the workforce continues to change its makeup, and individuals continue to take leaves of absences to attend to their personal needs, this area will surely continue to develop.

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 author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Jennifer L. Mora and Pamela Q. Devata

Seyfarth Synopsis: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder recently signed a bill that will prohibit counties and cities from enacting “ban-the-box” ordinances or other restrictions on the ability of private employers to inquire about criminal history early in the hiring process.”

On March 26, 2018, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed Senate Bill 0353, which amends existing state law that limits the powers of local governmental bodies regarding the regulation of terms and conditions of employment for private sector employers (the “Local Government Labor Regulatory Limitation Act”), by providing that:

A local governmental body shall not adopt, enforce, or administer an ordinance, local policy, or local resolution regulating information an employer or potential employer must request, require, or exclude on an application for employment or during the interview process from an employee or a potential employee.

In other words, Michigan cities and counties are prohibited from passing ban-the-box-ordinances for private sector employers or other laws that regulate hiring decisions made in the private sector. As a practical matter, this means that local government bodies in Michigan cannot require employers to wait until later in the hiring process, such as after an interview or a conditional offer, to ask job applicants, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”.

The law goes on to state that it does not prohibit an ordinance, local policy, or local resolution “requiring a criminal background check for an employee or potential employee in connection with the receipt of a license or permit from a local governmental body.”

The amendment is effective 90 days after it is enacted into law.

In the last few years, nationwide employers have struggled to keep up with the onslaught of state and local ban-the-box laws. Fortunately, for the time being, Michigan employers, and nationwide employers with a presence in Michigan, do not have to worry about this jurisdiction being added to the growing list of such laws, including, most recently, California and Washington. That said, existing Michigan law restricts employer use of criminal history in some respect by making it unlawful for an employer to request information regarding a misdemeanor arrest, detention or conviction that did not result in a conviction.

Employers that hire in Michigan should consider reviewing their background screening policies to ensure that misdemeanor non-convictions are not being requested or considered. All employers should continue to be mindful of other laws regulating criminal records checks and screening policies, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act (a consistent source of class action litigation) and state and local employment and ban-the-box laws.

If you would like further information, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Background Screening Compliance & Litigation Team.

By Rashal G. Baz, Katherine Mendez, and Chelsea D. Mesa

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employers are now being presented with more options to outsource workplace complaints through third party companies and mobile apps. This may create an ease in grievance reporting for the employee, but does not necessarily shield employer liability.

Harassment in the workplace is not a novel issue, but with the rise of national and global movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up — it has been on the forefront of our social, political and business conversations. Hollywood has cast a spotlight on sexual harassment and the sometimes imperfect protocols in place to address concerns. These issues are appearing in the headlines, TV shows, and social media platforms with the potential impacts of destroying a company’s goodwill and bottom line.

In response to this outcry and several industries’ spotting an opportunity to get involved, the technology-driven community has responded with mobile apps, anonymous grievance non-profit websites, new third-party consulting companies, and modernized hotline services. The goals of these new technologies and strategies is to heed complaints and optimize an employer’s response.

The Current State of Things

Before touching on the reporting outlets, it is critical to understand why a demand for such services exist. Historically, there have been studies that note the resistance to workplace harassment reporting. This could be attributed to a fear of employer retaliation, unwanted peer attention, distress in confronting a perpetrator or lack of trust in workplace changes following such a complaint. Sometimes employees simply do not know or recall where to find the protocol for filing harassment incidents. These are among the reasons the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other organizations shine a close light on the response procedures employed by a company.

Many employers use a host of different practices designed to make reporting as simple and effective as possible. These range from traditional reporting to a supervisor or HR in writing or in person, to the use of a designated ombudsman, email submissions and hotline phone numbers. The goal is to encourage the reporting of complaints, so they can be resolved.

A New Twist on Reporting

Mobile Applications: Glued to our phones, it only follows that harassment and employment complaint apps have been created for the workforce. When reporting an issue is easy and familiar, it stands to reason that more information will be transmitted to the business. One example app uses a subscription-based service employers can purchase and integrate into internal procedures. The app allows workers to identify themselves and their location or remain anonymous and pick from different pre-set messages to indicate the nature and severity of the concern. These apps also allow an employee to include documents, images or videos that are sent to their choice of two to four default managers who will receive the correspondence. These services claim to provide a safe space for raising concerns, free from external interference.

Consulting Groups: Third-party consulting groups have also responded to the need for something new by creating company-specific online environments where employees can file complaints. In turn, the consultants will assess the complaint, write an action plan on what type of investigation is needed, and provide an external “expert” to do a workplace investigation for inappropriate behavior. These companies tout experienced personnel that investigate the issue while avoiding the purported “inherent bias” human resources personnel may hold toward the complainant or accused employee.

Hotline Services: Outsourced workplace harassment and discrimination hotline services are not new, but seemed to have stepped up their game as well. Typically, hotlines provide a company-specific phone number, voicemail box and email address where employees can voice grievances. Instead of merely transmitting the collected data to employers, the third-party services are now also offering more involvement in employee complaints. Several now offer to have “experienced” human resource professionals produce a report that allows the employer to handle the issue internally, or chose an external route to be handled by a “team of experts,” similar to the aforementioned consulting process.

Will This Help My System?

While additional reporting processes can be beneficial to obtaining data and addressing complaints, using an external service does nothing to change any of the employer’s obligations. If an employer’s practices and implementation of strategy aren’t already strong, implementing the “hot new thing” would simply serve as a rearrangement of chairs on the deck of the Titanic, and not really solve much. In considering whether to add this to its arsenal, employers would have to trust that the individuals involved with their complaints are, in fact, qualified to handle them. Failures along the way will still fall on the shoulders of an employer.

An employer’s uniform response to delicate situations can help defend against retaliation claims stemming from harassment reports; however, it is difficult to remember, and thus repeat, how you responded to a previous situation without accessible and thorough documentation. Outsourcing the complaint to a third-party technology may assist in providing a platform employers can reference when handling a new grievance. However, these services can also expose employers to cybersecurity issues. This false sense of security can end in costly litigation if you do not audit these services on an annual basis. Complaints lost in the cloud will result in claims against employers, not the app.

These external systems also do not address the alleged “bias” concern plaintiffs often argue exist. These systems would still be contracted and paid for by the employer, who will have likely partnered with the third party to set up the system. And as the third party works with the employer over time and learns its business, a relationship between the parties (and a desire to keep the employer happy so the relationship continues) will likely develop. It is unclear how a third party will avoid the same arguments of bias that an internal process will face. This further rings true because the relationship’s collaborative nature still has the employer making the ultimate decision on next steps in response to a complaint.

On the flip side, employers who choose not to utilize such services may not be out of reach of their effects. There are organizations creating anonymous hotlines that allow employees from any company to submit a report that in turn is “instantly” sent to who they deem the appropriate individuals within the complainant’s organization. And Silicon Valley has created smartphone apps that allow employees to anonymously report an incident to the company’s chief executive and board. This places the burden on those who receive these complaints, who may not be the person within an organization able to respond quickly enough, to send them through the proper channels. Even though these systems may provide another means for employees to feel as though they have raised a concern, there is no guarantee it gets into the company and to someone who can address it.

The Takeaways

There have been many assessments on how to minimize incidents of harassment and create a zero-tolerance environment for such scenarios. Initially, these new systems may seem like the right solution, but if you are integrating protocols that are not followed by the head of the company to the grassroots, a palpable workplace change and a legally sound grievance procedure is unlikely.

The benefit of these outlets include the creation of additional accessible channels workers may feel safe utilizing, but does not guarantee the complaint gets in the hand of the person who has the power to address it. Using a third party to assess complaints may avoid alleged HR biases in theory, but the company’s relationship with the service and ultimate decision-making ability weakens the practicality of that benefit.

These resources may represent the future of reporting and thus require employers to proactively adopt policies and training to avoid being blindsided by their arrival. Ultimately, the release of numerous online lists pointing out sexual harassment perpetrators and the rise in anonymous direct-to-company complaints may create an ethical duty to prepare your staff on how to process the information. Should you chose to contract these grievance reporting services, it would be wise to conduct internal training on how to utilize it and what human resources/supervisors should do when they receive notice of a complaint. Finally, evaluate and update your workplace harassment and reporting policies.

Ensure your company has the internal knowledge it needs to react when the time comes. And always feel free to reach out to your favorite Seyfarth employment lawyer for guidance on how to implement and maintain the most effective and appropriate processes as we march toward the future of harassment reporting.

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