By Ashley Laken

Seyfarth Synopsis: The NLRB’s Division of Advice recently released an Advice Memorandum finding that a security company’s work rules were unlawfully overbroad, but that the company did not violate the National Labor Relations Act by discharging one of its employees for posting an insidious Facebook video or by filing a defamation lawsuit against two former employees.

Earlier this month, the NLRB’s Division of Advice publicly released an Advice Memorandum that it had issued to Region 27 of the NLRB in August 2018 (the NLRB’s policy is to release Advice Memos at its discretion only after the disputes they concern end), in which the Division of Advice opined on the legality of a security company’s workplace policies, the discharge of an employee for posting a Facebook video, and the company’s filing of a defamation lawsuit against that employee and another former employee. In Colorado Professional Security Services, LLC (Case 27-CA-203915, et al.), the NLRB’s Division of Advice found the policies at issue were unlawful, but did not find the employee’s firing or the defamation lawsuit were unlawful.

The Facts

The company maintained the following policy: “Employees must refrain from engaging in conduct that could adversely affect the Company’s business or reputation. Such conduct includes, but is not limited to…publicly criticizing the Company, its management or its employees.”

In 2016, Charging Party 1, a former employee, filed federal and state court wage-and-hour lawsuits against the company; the lawsuits were joined by other former and current employees, including Charging Party 2, who was then a current employee. In May 2017, Charging Party 1 caused to be posted on Facebook two photos that appeared to show a company security guard sleeping on the job, including the captions, “Wow look at Colorado Professional security services hard at work.”

On several occasions in 2017, the company disciplined Charging Party 2 for being unkempt and not wearing the proper uniform. The disciplinary letters issued to Charging Party 2 included language prohibiting discussion of the discipline with coworkers or clients. After one such instance of discipline, Charging Party 2 posted a 23-minute live video on Facebook during work hours and while in uniform talking about the discipline for wearing improper shoes and the confidentiality provision in the disciplinary notice, referencing the wage-and-hour lawsuits, making crude and disparaging jokes and comments about a supervisor, and stating that by asking Charging Party 2 to sign something interfering with free speech, the conduct of the company’s officials was “against the United States Constitution and you need to be shot on sight.”

Soon after, the company discharged Charging Party 2, stating that Charging Party 2 was being discharged for insubordination, regularly being unkempt and not in the proper uniform, conflict of interest, and insidious remarks regarding the company name, business, and security officers while on duty and in uniform. The company also filed a state court lawsuit against Charging Party 1 and Charging Party 2, alleging that their Facebook posts constituted defamation and interference with business relations. Thereafter, Charging Party 1 and Charging Party 2 filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.

The Division of Advice’s Findings

The Division of Advice concluded that the policy prohibiting employees from criticizing the company and the standard disciplinary letter language prohibiting employees from discussing their discipline with coworkers or clients violated the National Labor Relations Act. The Division of Advice found that under the NLRB’s Boeing decision, these were Category 2 rules that violated the Act because the impact on employees’ right under the NLRA to engage in protected concerted activity outweighed the company’s business justification. The Division of Advice found that by prohibiting any public criticism of the company or its management, the company was expressly interfering with any appeals by employees to the public in labor disputes, and the company did not have a legitimate business justification for that kind of total ban. Regarding the disciplinary letter language, the Division of Advice concluded that by prohibiting employees from discussing their discipline with coworkers and clients, the company was expressly interfering with the right of employees to communicate with each other or third parties on a central term of employment, without any legitimate business justification for doing so.

However, the Division of Advice found that the discharge of Charging Party 2 did not violate the Act. The Division of Advice found that although Charging Party 2 was discharged, at least in part, for violating the unlawfully overbroad rules, the discharge was not unlawful because the Facebook video did not constitute protected concerted activity and it was so egregious that other employees would not connect Charging Party 2’s discharge to the overbroad aspect of the rules. The Division of Advice found that although Charging Party 2 referred to subjects in the video that could have been relevant to employees’ mutual aid or protection, the comments were entirely individual complaints and there was no indication that Charging Party 2 was speaking for other employees or seeking to act in concert with others. The Division of Advice also noted that Charging Party 2’s crude and disparaging jokes and comments about the supervisor were so egregious that Charging Party 2’s coworkers would not connect the discharge to the overbroad aspect of the rules, thus mitigating any chilling effect on potential NLRA-protected activity by employees.

The Division of Advice also found that the employer’s defamation lawsuit against the Charging Parties did not violate the NLRA. The Division of Advice noted that the Supreme Court has held that the NLRB can enjoin as an unfair labor practice the filing and prosecution of a lawsuit only when the lawsuit lacks a reasonable basis in law or fact and was commenced with a retaliatory motive. Advice found that although the company’s lawsuit was baseless (Advice noted that the company had failed to plead in the lawsuit that the allegedly defamatory statements were made with malice or to plead any specific damages suffered by the company), the lawsuit was not unlawful because it was not directed at any protected concerted activity and had not been otherwise shown to retaliate against the Charging Parties’ protected conduct. In reaching this conclusion, Advice noted that the lawsuit came soon after the Charging Parties’ Facebook posts and almost one year after the wage-and-hour lawsuits were filed.

Takeaways for Employers

The Advice Memo drives home that point that employers would be well-advised to review their policies, handbooks, and standard disciplinary notice language to ensure that they do not contain any language that runs afoul of the National Labor Relations Act. The Advice Memo is also a reminder for employers that whether an employee’s actions constitute protected concerted activity is a highly fact-specific inquiry and is often a close question. The Memo also provides guidance on the circumstances under which a lawsuit filed against a current or former employee might be found to be an unfair labor practice charge. Employers with questions about any of these issues should contact labor counsel.

By Benjamin J. Conley, Erin Dougherty Foley, Sam Schwartz-Fenwick, Megan E. Troy, Kaley M. Ventura

Seyfarth Synopsis: Join us for our second Chicago Labor & Employment Breakfast Briefing of the year, “ERISA in 2019: What Employers Need To Know”.

Please join our interactive panel for an exciting high level discussion which will dive into the ERISA based issues that employers in Illinois need to be aware of.

Specifically, our panelists will address:

  • The pros and cons of including mandatory arbitration provisions in ERISA plans.
  • Developments relating to retirement plan design and administration, including new plan design opportunities (e.g., student loan benefits), recent audit experience relating to missing participants, and the updated IRS procedures for correcting operational errors.
  • The current legal landscape surrounding the Affordable Care Act.
  • Enforcement efforts surrounding HIPAA privacy and security.
  • The benefit implications of the Supreme Court analyzing whether current employment law extends to LGBT individuals.
  • Trends in retirement plan litigation including recent cases involving fiduciary breach and the duty to monitor.
  • Trends in welfare benefit litigation, including recent cases involving cross plan offsetting and mental health parity.

While there is no cost to attend, registration is required and seating is limited.

May 15, 2019, 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 8000, Chicago, IL, 60606
8:00 a.m. – 8:30 a.m. Breakfast & Registration
8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Program

Seyfarth Shaw LLP is an approved provider of Illinois Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit.  This seminar is approved for 1.5 hours of CLE credit CA, IL, NY, NJ and TX.  CLE Credit is pending for GA and VA.  HR professionals: please note that the HR Certification Institute accepts CLE credit toward recertification.

If you have any questions, please contact Fiona Carlon at fcarlon@seyfarth.com and reference this event.

By Robert A. Fisher, James M. Hlawek, and Christopher W. Kelleher

Seyfarth Synopsis: On January 29, 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the failure to grant a lateral transfer may be the basis of a discrimination claim under Massachusetts anti-discrimination law where an employee can show there are material differences between the two positions in the opportunity for compensation, or in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.

To bring a discrimination claim under Massachusetts law, an employee has to show that he was subjected to an “adverse employment action.”  Some actions, such as firing an employee, are obviously adverse employment actions.  But other actions are not.  In this case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court addressed whether a failure to grant a lateral transfer from one position to another can be an “adverse employment action,” even where the base pay and benefits of the two positions are the same.

Plaintiff Warren Yee is a Massachusetts State Police lieutenant who immigrated from China.  In December 2008, Yee requested a transfer from State Police Troop H in South Boston to Troop F at Logan Airport in East Boston.  State Police lieutenants earn the same base pay and benefits regardless of their station.  But Yee claims — based on the testimony of one trooper who earned more in Troop F than in Troop H — that the potential for compensation in Troop F is greater because there are more opportunities for overtime and paid details in Troop F.

Between 2008 and 2012, several troopers were either transferred or promoted to the position of lieutenant in Troop F, but Yee never received an interview despite his request for a transfer.  Yee brought suit in 2014 alleging that the failure to allow him to transfer to Troop F amounted to age, race, and national origin discrimination.  The State Police moved for summary judgment, arguing that no reasonable jury could find an “adverse employment action” where the State Police simply declined to provide Yee with a transfer that would not have changed his base pay or his benefits.

The Court acknowledged that the denial of Yee’s request for a transfer did not affect his base pay or his benefits.  However, the Court found that where an employee can show material differences between two positions in the opportunity for compensation or any other material differences in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, the failure to grant a lateral transfer between the two positions could be an adverse employment action.  Because Yee showed a higher opportunity for compensation in Troop F, the Court found that Yee could bring a discrimination claim based on the failure to transfer him.

Employers should proceed with caution on transfers just as they do on hiring, promotion and termination decisions.  Like those other decisions, a failure to grant a lateral transfer may be the basis of a discrimination claim if the employee is able to offer evidence that the positions differ in opportunities for compensation or in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.

If you have any questions regarding this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks or Labor & Employment Teams.

By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and John Ayers-Mann

Seyfarth Synopsis: Today, the Supreme Court granted review to a trio of Title VII cases raising the issue of whether Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The Court’s decision in these cases could create a federal right of action for individuals discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

On April 22, 2019, the Supreme Court announced that it would review a trio of decisions questioning whether Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination “on the basis of sex,” includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

In Zarda v. Altitude Express, the plaintiff alleged that his employer violated Title VII for terminating his employment due to his being gay. Reviewing the matter en banc, the Second Circuit ruled for the plaintiff and held that Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex necessarily prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In so ruling, it overturned prior Circuit precedent. In reaching this holding, the Second Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit in finding sexual orientation discrimination to be prohibited by Title VII.

Three months later, the Eleventh Circuit reached the opposite conclusion. In its decision, the Eleventh Circuit re-affirmed circuit precedent established  in Blum v. Gulf Oil Corp and Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital that the protections of Title VII did not extend to claims of sexual orientation discrimination.

R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, a claim that arose from the Sixth Circuit, addresses the related issue of gender identity discrimination.  The claim involves a  transgender woman who was terminated from her job after transitioning from male to female. The Sixth Circuit found that a termination based on an employee’s gender identity falls squarely within Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex and sex-based stereotypes. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit held that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

The Supreme Court’s review of the scope of Title VII comes at a pivotal point in history.  Amendments expressly including LGBT protections in Title VII have been introduced in every Congress since the 1990s, but none have passed.  Thus, Courts for over a generation have been grappling with the question of how broadly to construe the term “sex” in Title VII.

While the Supreme Court has never answered this question, many proponents of a broad reading of the word “sex” contend that its prior precedents lend some support to a broad reading of the term by finding that sex stereotypes (not acting how someone of your gender is supposed to act) give rise to a cognizable claim under Title VII.  See Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989) and Oncale v. Sundower Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998). Opponents of such a broad view of the statute, in contrast, argue that the word “sex” must be given the limited historical view intended by the drafters of Title VII during the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act.

In its first gay rights ruling in a generation without the voice of Justice Kennedy it is unclear how the court will rule. The Supreme Court’s decision may create a federal right of action for individuals who suffer discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, the Court may rule that no such right exists under current law, or the Court may find that a right exists but must be balanced against an employer’s religious liberty interest. Stay tuned as we continue to follow this matter.

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

By Kyla J. Miller and Tracy M. Billows

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Illinois Senate unanimously passed an all-encompassing sexual harassment bill, which hits all of the big ticket workplace sexual harassment hot topics, including imposing sexual harassment training and extensive reporting requirements, bans on non-disclosure agreements, arbitration clauses and non-disparagement clauses, and hefty penalties for non- compliance. Whether the House will now move forward with the bill is to be continued…

On Thursday, April 11, 2019, the Illinois Senate approved SB 1829, showing this bill has some teeth with unanimous support on a vote of 56-0. The bill–dubbed the Sexual Harassment Omnibus Bill– aims to provide additional protections to victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. At the same time, the legislation imposes strict requirements for employers, including requiring annual sexual harassment training, and banning any non-disclosure or similar agreements. If ultimately passed, this bill would bring Illinois in line with several other states–including New York, Vermont, and California, among others–that have passed sweeping sexual harassment legislation in response to the #MeToo movement.

Key Provisions

  • Bans the use of legal documents that could prevent an employee from reporting sexual harassment. This includes: (1) non-disclosure agreements, (2) arbitration clauses, and (3) non-disparagement clauses. Such provisions would be prohibited for any case involving harassment, discrimination, or retaliation.
  • Provides independent contractors with protection against harassment for the first time in Illinois history. Currently, only employees are protected.
  • Increases protection for employees who are merely perceived to be part of a protected class–i.e. gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity–even if they are not actually a part of the protected class.
  • Expands applicability of the Victims Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA) to victims of sexual harassment. Currently, VESSA only covers victims of domestic or sexual violence. This expansion would allow sexual harassment victims to also take unpaid leave from work to seek medical help, legal assistance, counseling, safety planning, and other assistance.
  • Prevents union representatives from representing both a victim of sexual harassment and the alleged harasser in a disciplinary proceeding.
  • Requires employers, labor organizations, and units of local government to disclose the number of sexual harassment and discrimination settlements or actions against them to the Department of Human rights.
  • Mandates employers conduct annual, interactive sexual harassment training for employees. The Department of Human Rights would be tasked with creating a sexual harassment training program made available to all employers. Employers would need to either comply with the Department’s program, or create their own program that equals or exceeds the minimum standards in the model.
  • Imposes penalties for employers who fail to report sexual harassment data, or comply with training requirements.

Illinois Continues To Push For Sexual Harassment Reform

SB 1829 comes as no surprise. Both the House and Senate have been vocal about creating an all-encompassing bill to address the workplace concerns that surround the #MeToo movement. Last year, the Senate created a Bipartisan task force on sexual harassment. The group has been actively discussing the issue of workplace sexual harassment for the past year. The legislation will proceed to the House for consideration next month.

Employer Takeaways

While employers don’t need to take action yet–they should keep a close watch. Should this bill, or some variation pass, it would impose significant hurdles for employers, and hefty penalties for failure to comply. Consider taking a brief inventory now–what policies and practices do you have in place? If you do not currently require sexual harassment training–or if you do but it is not interactive–be prepared to adjust. Similarly, if you currently enforce non-disclosure agreements, arbitration, or non-disparagement clauses, be ready to make those cuts. Given the political pressure surrounding this reform, it is likely at least portions of this bill will eventually become law, but in exactly what form remains unclear.

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.

By Jennifer Mora

Seyfarth Synopsis: Given this recent New Mexico medical marijuana law change discussed here, employers in all jurisdictions should review their current policies and practices addressing “weed at work” and continue to monitor developments in this evolving area of law.

Although New Mexico has had a medical marijuana law in place since 2007, it did not contain protections for job applicants and employees. However, all of that changed on April 4, 2019 when New Mexico Governor Grisham signed Senate Bill 406, which amends the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act (the “Act”) to include changes that will impact New Mexico employers and their consideration and treatment of individuals using medical marijuana.

In addition to expanding the types of conditions for which an individual can use medical marijuana, employers now are prohibited from taking any “adverse employment action against an applicant or an employee based on conduct allowed under” the Act, including declining to hire, terminating, or taking any other adverse action against an individual because he or she is using medical marijuana or received a recommendation for such use by a provider.

There are some exceptions. Specifically, the employment protections do not apply:

  • If the employer would lose monetary or other licensing-related benefits under federal laws or regulations if it hires or employs individuals who use marijuana or test positive for marijuana.
  • If the employee will work in a “safety-sensitive position,” defined to mean “a position in which performance by a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol would constitute an immediate or direct threat of injury or death to that person or another.”
  • To employees who use or are impaired by medical marijuana while working, during “hours of employment,” or on premises. Indeed, the law is clear that employers can take adverse action against an employee for using or being impaired by marijuana “on the premises of the place of employment or during the hours of employment.”

Unlike a few other medical marijuana laws, SB 406 says nothing about what, if anything, an employer can do if an applicant or employee tests positive for marijuana. Moreover, while employers can take action against employees impaired by marijuana while working, on premises or during working hours, the law provides no clarity as to what it means for an employee to be “impaired by” marijuana. New Mexico employers will now need to consider how best to respond when a medical marijuana user tests positive for the drug.

More states are enacting medical marijuana laws with provisions protecting applicants and employees, and while the initial trend in the courts favored employers, courts have started issuing employee-friendly decisions addressing existing laws. The laws and court decisions are making it particularly challenging, yet critically important, for employers to stay ahead of this fast-moving trend and avoid being a test case in their state. This is especially true now that applicants and employees are bringing claims under state disability discrimination laws rather than medical marijuana laws. Employers in all jurisdictions should review their current policies and practices addressing “weed at work” and continue to monitor developments in this evolving area of law.

By Paul CutroneSam Witton and Sarah Goodhew

Seyfarth Synopsis: This morning we feature a blog from our colleagues at Seyfarth Shaw Australia, which provides updates and insights on workplace issues, employment law and health and safety, from Seyfarth Shaw Australia’s team of local and international experts.

Our clients care deeply about innovation and technology. We know this from our engagement with clients including discussions triggered by reflecting on the findings of the CSIRO’s Workplace Safety Futures report.

Our clients care about “machines” (including “robots”, artificial intelligence, biometrics and the harnessing of big data) being developed as a result of innovation and technology because of the unprecedented efficiencies and improvements in safety they unlock.

These benefits come with a potentially profound human cost. Depending on which research you turn to, the predictions are that between 9 and 50 per cent of jobs will be replaced by machines in the next decade.

This rapid pace of change has caused leading scholars to argue that some, if not a large majority of humans face a fate worse than redundancy: complete irrelevance.

The jobs of the future will involve “caring” and other “soft” skills machines can’t replicate  

This sobering thought caused us to reflect on what the skills of the future should be to counter this impending irrelevance. The current thinking from some quarters (including most Governments in the Western world) is that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the subjects of the “future” and that we should be teaching more students these subjects in our schools, technical colleges and universities.

Cybersecurity and understanding the potential vulnerabilities of machines and how to fix them is one growth area. Estimates are a near 40 per cent uplift in the number of people needed with these skills in the next decade.

At the same time, leaders of businesses are arguing that one of the hardest skills to recruit for is the ability of candidates to write and speak publicly to communicate ideas clearly. Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, has said that “[h]ow you communicate with other people, how you interact with other people, how you express yourself will have a huge impact on your success”.

The bigger question though is how we, as a society, prepare for the future?

Embedded in this question are further intrinsic questions around what it is that machines cannot do, or what it is that machines cannot do better than humans? An understanding of the answers to these questions is necessary if we attempt to protect ourselves from redundancy and, worse still, irrelevance.

It’s heartening to hear that across all reports that communication skills remain valuable in the “new world” of work.  This is good news for lawyers and many professions.

Knowledge of machines + deep understanding of people = recipe to thrive

Perhaps the focus here should be on the things that, for now at least, machines can’t replace. In the main these are the very things that make us human and make us feel. This includes the joy we experience through art, literature, movies, theatre, dance or music. It also includes the empathy we feel that comes from human care and kindness.

Leading organisation are already harnessing “blended” skill sets

Leading organisations with which we work have already recognised the need to combine a knowledge of machines with the “caring” and “feeling” skills, so called “softer” skills, that machines can’t replicate. These organisations seek out and promote, through lifelong learning, essential skills in communication, creativity, innovation and intercultural competency.

The future is impossible to predict with accuracy. One thing though is clear –  the impact of machines on the jobs we have today is inevitable. If we set ourselves on a path to learn only the skills which machines can potentially replace, we set ourselves on a dangerous path.

Based on the inevitability of the machines replacing humans, combined with the focus on the “softer” skills associated with creativity, we are working with our clients to do just that get more creative.

Creativity is not only one of the key skills that will relate to employability in ever increasing ways but we are seeing employees seek out organisations that hold creativity as a core value. Why? They will be sustainable long term. We might care about machines, but as yet they don’t care about us.

By Michael Jacobsen, Christopher DeGroff, and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  On April 10, 2019, the EEOC released its comprehensive enforcement and litigation statistics for Fiscal Year 2018.  The release arrived a few months later than usual – likely due to the recent government shutdown – but still packed a punch in several respects, including to the back-drop on retaliation and sex discrimination charges in the midst of the #MeToo movement, the number of merits lawsuits filed, and significant monetary recoveries, as well as a reduced charge inventory.  It is a must-read for all employers.

On April 10, 2019, the EEOC released its comprehensive enforcement and litigation statistics for Fiscal Year 2018 (available here).  In addition to enforcement and litigation activity, the data breaks down charge statistics by allegation and state – showing which charges are being filed the most and where.  Although the dip in total charges filed certainly stands out, so does the prominence of retaliation and sex discrimination charges in the #MeToo era.  The statistics are somewhat of a “report card” on the Commission’s activities, and also illustrates the continued increase in the number of lawsuits filed by the EEOC overall, as well as the number of systemic lawsuits filed specifically, and touts the substantial monetary recoveries that the EEOC continues to reel in from employers.  The data also mark the EEOC’s accomplishments in reducing its charge inventory.

Charges Are Down Overall

In total, 76,418 charges were filed in FY 2018.  Not only is this down from 84,254 charges in FY 2017, but FY 2018 saw the third fewest charges filed for all fiscal years going back to FY 1997 according to the EEOC’s data, above only FY 2006 (with 75,768 charges) and FY 2005 (75,428).  Further putting FY 2018’s drop to 76,418 charges in perspective, the number of charges filed exceeded 80,000 every other year starting in FY 2007, by 8,000 to 19,000 in most of them.

Consistent with this overall decline, there was a decrease in almost every category of charges in FY 2018 from FY 2017, with the exceptions of some modest increases in Equal Pay Act and genetic information charges at the very bottom of the list.  The category that decreased the most was race, by 3,928 charges – or almost 14% – from FY 2017 to FY 2018.

While generally down, however, these numbers are still sizable.  And outreach to the agency was consistent with prior years, as well, with the EEOC reporting that it addressed 519,000 calls to its toll-free number and more than 200,000 inquiries to its field offices in FY 2018, roughly in the ballpark of 540,000 calls and 155,000 inquiries in FY 2017, respectively.

Texas And Florida Are Still Hot, With California Getting Warmer

Looking at the states where the most charges were filed, the hot spots largely remained the same in FY 2018 as in FY 2017.  In fact, 9 out of the top 10 states in FY 2017 also made the cut for FY 2018, except for Alabama knocking Tennessee out of the number 10 spot. As in FY 2017, Texas (with 7,482 charge receipts) and Florida (with 6,617 charge receipts) were the top two states for charges in FY 2018.

Texas and Florida should come as no surprise, given their relative populations according to the most recent census data (found here). But population is not everything.  For example, Georgia (at number 4) surpasses states with higher populations, and Illinois and Pennsylvania each have more filings than New York.  And, although one might expect California to be number one given that it is the most populous state, its strong state discrimination statute tends to claim charges that may otherwise have been filed with the federal agency.  Nevertheless, while the top 10 list on the whole was fairly static from the prior fiscal year, California was a notable exception, leaping from having the sixth most charges filed in FY 2017 to the third most charges filed in FY 2018.

Retaliation Charges Remain In First, With Sex Discrimination A Notable Second

In total, 39,469 retaliation charges were filed with the EEOC in FY 2018.  As has been the case for the past five years, this made retaliation the most frequently filed charge in FY 2018.  Also noteworthy, retaliation charges crept over the 50% marker in FY 2018, continuing a steady annual increase from 42.8% of the total charges filed in FY 2014.

Behind retaliation were sex, disability and race charges, each approximately 32% of the total charges filed with the EEOC.  (As the EEOC notes, the percentages total more than 100 because some charges allege multiple bases.)

Sex discrimination charges (which would include pregnancy discrimination, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment) were particularly notable in that they edged out disability and race charges by a tenth of a percent to claim the number-two spot, after being the fourth most frequently filed charge in FY 2017.  Breaking down the data for sex charges further, there were 7,609 sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC in FY 2018, making for a sizable jump of 13.6% over the prior fiscal year.

No doubt, these trends in sexual discrimination and retaliation charges were fueled by the “significant impact of the #MeToo movement,” as noted by Acting Chair Victoria A. Lipnic.  Indeed, the EEOC’s commitment in this area has not wavered in light of the increased visibility of workplace sexual harassment resulting high-profile media coverage in 2018.  As reported previously, the 41 sexual harassment lawsuits filed by the EEOC in FY 2018 marked a 5-year high.  And the EEOC also reported a total recovery of $56.6 million for alleged victims of sexual harassment in FY 2018.

EEOC Keeping Its Foot On The Gas

Overall, the statistics show that the EEOC filed 199 merits lawsuits in FY 2018, up from 184 merits lawsuits filed in FY 2017.  While not as dramatic a spike from the year before – in which the EEOC more than doubled the number of merits lawsuits it filed compared to the prior fiscal year – the appreciable growth in FY 2018 on top of that jump should not be overlooked.  The EEOC reports that 117 of those lawsuits were on behalf of individuals, 45 were non-systemic suits with multiple victims, and another 37 were systemic claims.

The EEOC labels a case as “systemic” if it “has a broad impact on an industry, company or geographic area.”  As such, these cases pose heightened exposure.  In terms of percentages, systemic lawsuits accounted for about 18.5% of the total number of filings, which is consistent with prior years (16% of all merits lawsuits in FY 2017 and 20% in FY 2016).  Looking at the numbers, however, the 37 systemic lawsuits filed in FY 2018 was up from 30 that the EEOC filed in FY 2017, 18 in FY 2016 and 16 in FY 2015.  As with the number of merits lawsuits filed, the number of systemic lawsuits may not have risen quite as dramatically as it did in FY 2017.  Nevertheless, employers should pay attention as the number continues to rise in FY 2018 even in the wake FY 2017’s spike.  Clearly, the EEOC is not shying away from pursuing these “bet-the-company” cases.

The EEOC boasted substantial recoveries to boot.   Specifically, the EEOC secured more than half a billion dollars ($505 million) in total relief for alleged discrimination victims in FY 2018.  This marks a substantial increase from $484 million in FY 2017 and $482.1 million in FY 2016.

Bringing Down The Backlog

Another priority of the EEOC in recent years has been reducing the large backlog of pending charges, which had been a longstanding issue for the agency.  In FY 2018, the EEOC resolved 90,558 charges.  This was down from 99,109 charges resolved in FY 2017 and 97,443 charges in FY 2016.  Nevertheless, the EEOC still decreased its charge inventory by 19.5%, to 49,607 in FY 2018, following up on FY 2017, in which the EEOC decreased its charge inventory by 16.2% to 61,621.  Indeed, as Acting Chair Lipnic noted for FY 2018, the data reflected the “lowest inventory of private sector charges in a dozen years.”  The EEOC attributed its success in this area to new strategies for prioritizing charges and resolving them more efficiently, and with the assistance of enhanced technology.

Implications For Employers

Despite the dips in overall charges filed, the EEOC’s enforcement efforts remain robust, and the EEOC continues to get results, as demonstrated by its recovery statistics.  And, by reducing its backlog, the EEOC is freeing up its resources for further enforcement efforts.  As noted in our other reports, clearly the EEOC is aggressively pursuing its strategic goals under the current administration.  Employers should keep an eye on these statistics, especially with retaliation and sex discrimination issues firmly in the forefront.  And, by continuing to set the culture in their workplaces through leadership and accountability, along with sound human resources practices such as sharp written policies, comprehensive training and robust response protocols, employers can guard against these issues, which clearly are not going away.

By Kristina M. Launey and Minh N. Vu

Seyfarth Synopsis: Four years and two motions to dismiss based on the pleadings later, the National Association of the Deaf’s (NAD) online video captioning lawsuit against Harvard University is moving forward to fact discovery. On March 28, Federal Magistrate Judge Robertson in the District of Massachusetts denied the university’s motion for judgment on the pleadings with some notable discussion about whether websites are places of public accommodation under the ADA and limitations of liability for third party content.

Physical Nexus Argument Rejected. The First Circuit has held in a case about an allegedly discriminatory insurance policy that a business can be a public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA even if it is not associated with a physical place where customers go. Harvard argued that this precedent did not apply to cases involving websites, but the Court was not persuaded. The Court also said that even if the law did require Harvard’s websites to have a nexus with a good or service provided at a physical location, the Plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged such a nexus because some of the allegedly inaccessible videos could, for example, pertain to courses taught at the school.

University Content Posted on Third Party Websites. The Court said whether Harvard could be legally responsible for content it posts on third party websites (e.g. YouTube, iTunesU, and SoundCloud) depends on facts which have yet to be developed, including whether the university has control over how the content is displayed, and whether captioning the content would provide meaningful access. The Court also noted that the university may be able to show that providing captioning would fundamentally alter the nature of the service provided or be an undue burden.

CDA Immunity for Third Party Content. In a meaningful initial victory for Harvard, the Court acknowledged that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) shields Harvard from liability under Title III of the ADA and the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act with respect to two categories of content: (1) content hosted on a third party-server (not belonging to Harvard) that is hyperlinked in its existing form to content that is hosted on a Harvard platform or website (“Embedded Content”) and (2) content is hosted on a Harvard platform or website that Harvard did not create, produce, or substantially alter (“Third Party Content”). The CDA shields website operators, including educational institutions, from being treated as the publisher or speaker of material posted on the website by third party users. While the Court’s holding reduces the number of videos that remain at issue in the case, the Court was not willing to immediately exclude all content posted by students, individual faculty members, or other scholars as requested by Harvard. The Court said discovery into Harvard’s role with respect to such content is needed to see if it really is third party content exempted by the CDA.

To Be Continued… We will continue to monitor this long- running case. NAD filed the lawsuit in 2015, alleging Harvard violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide closed captioning for thousands of videos on its websites. In November 2016, the court denied Harvard’s motion to stay or dismiss on the primary jurisdiction doctrine, finding the court did not need the DOJ’s expertise to rule on the issue. The present order noted that in the time intervening the two motions, the parties engaged in settlement talks and negotiations to resolve or narrow the issues, but could not reach an agreement.

By Sam Witton, Paul Cutrone, and Sarah Goodhew

It is widely proclaimed that we are in the midst of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR). The leaps and bounds that are being made daily in information technology and biotechnology signal the end of homo sapiens or provide liberating freedom for the working masses, depending on which commentator’s view you believe.

For us, the daily lived experience of the 4IR in working and home life is not yet as cataclysmic nor as emancipating as the commentators proclaim. However, the ever growing use of technological, timesaving solutions, the ‘gigification’ of the workforce, the blurring of the lines between work and home and the rising issue of workplace psychological health all signal shifting global trends.

Regional trends that are responding to the 4IR

The 4IR is shaping workplace laws. Working across regions we see examples that point to trends in laws responding to the new world of work arrangements such as non-traditional labour models. As an example, recent amendments to the Occupational Safety and Health Act in Korea have expanded the scope of statutory protections to “persons providing labour” (as opposed to “employees”) and introduce an obligation on franchisors to take preventive measures for workplace accidents suffered by franchisees and their workers.

Positive regional trends can be seen in how workers are protected by existing laws. The latest amendment to the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases on 4 November 2017 and recent cases indicate a trend in Beijing and Shanghai that the enforcement of health and safety at work is in focus, more comprehensive and increasingly strict.

Australian Governments are grappling with the challenge of laws that are responsive to the 4IR with recommendations to review Work Health and Safety Laws to deal with new and emerging business models, industries and hazards.

Rising issues of sexual harassment and workplace psychological health – a focus for regulators

Laws continue to be tested against the explosion in reporting of workplace sexual harassment, with calls for Workplace Health and Safety laws to specifically include sexual harassment as a risk that must be eliminated or minimised by duty holders. Regulators are encouraging anonymous whistleblowing to facilitate investigation.

We are also expecting more regulator activity in relation to workplace psychological health.

Exploring ‘megatrends’ for the future will help us prepare for change

It is more important than ever to understand the risks associated with the constant change in workplaces.

The Workplace Safety Futures report recently prepared by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization has identified the following six megatrends for workplaces over the next 20 years:

 Each megatrend presents both risks and opportunities but all are predicted to re-shape workplace health and safety. Business will need to grapple with these changes to ensure they continue to meet their legal obligations through what promises to be a period of rapid and potentially radical change.