Two Federal Courts Dismiss ADA Website Accessibility Claims

In the last two months, at least two federal district courts have dismissed website accessibility lawsuits filed against private companies under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), proving that this issue continues to be the Achilles Heel of the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Regulatory Arena.

For context, imagine a blind person who is unable to make online mortgage payments because his bank’s website did not provide him the means.  The DOJ is tasked with enforcing the ADA, a federal statute that provides for equal access to places of public accommodation, including private businesses, for such persons with disabilities.  However, the text of the ADA is silent about public accommodations’ websites, and a recent executive order aimed at decreasing federal regulations has all but eliminated any chance that the DOJ will issue regulations on that topic.  The absence of such regulations has emboldened disability advocacy groups across the nation to flood the courts with lawsuits against companies alleging a failure to provide equal access to audio, audiovisual, or other content made available online.

Not so fast, said the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  On March 20, 2017, in the case of Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, No. 16-06599, the federal court dismissed ADA web accessibility litigation brought against the enormous food retailer, Domino’s.  The court relied on the “primary jurisdiction doctrine,” which allows courts to dismiss complaints pending the resolution of an issue that is “within the special competence of an administrative agency.”  Noting that Congress has vested exclusive authority with the DOJ to promulgate regulations defining what web accessibility standards to impose on private companies, the court concluded that it was inappropriate to render judgment against Domino’s in the absence of such regulations.

There are various other legal issues that arise in ADA web accessibility cases, including the concept of standing, which means having a concrete injury that can be rectified by a court order, and whether a website is a place of public accommodation.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, in the case of Gomez v. Bang & Olfusen America, Inc., No. 16-23801, shed light on both issues.  The Gomez court dismissed an ADA web accessibility claim brought by a plaintiff who contended that the company’s website could hypothetically impede a blind person from enjoying all the benefits of the company’s retail stores on the basis that the plaintiff did not have a particularized injury (i.e., standing).  As the court concluded, “[h]is generalized grievances are wholly unconnected to any harm he actually suffered at the place of public accommodation (i.e. the concrete, physical store) and are therefore insufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.”  The court also recognized that websites are not included in the ADA’s express list of public accommodations: “If Congress – recognizing that the internet is an integral part of modern society – wishes to amend the ADA to define a website as a place of public accommodation, it may do so.  But the Court, having no legislative power, cannot create law where none exist.”

Although these cases may suggest a shield to ADA web accessibility litigation, there are just as many courts across the country taking completely opposite views.  For example, only one year ago, a Massachusetts federal court rejected the “primary jurisdiction doctrine” (relied upon in Robles) as a basis to dismiss ADA web accessibility claims made against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  See Nat’l Ass’n of the Deaf, et al., v. Harvard Univ., et al., No. 15-30023; Nat’l Ass’n of the Deaf, et al. v. Massachusetts Inst. of Tech., No. 15-30024.  Given the national split over these issues and the unlikelihood that the DOJ will issue clarifying regulations, businesses should be cautious.

The first step a business should take to minimize the risk of expensive litigation and exhausting DOJ investigations is to designate an ADA coordinator/compliance group to audit its website.  Companies should simultaneously work with counsel so that reports and findings from these audits are generated under privilege.  In addition, companies should adopt strong website accessibility polices and staff training materials.  Moreover, one of the most effective ways to stave off litigation is to provide a customer service, like a hotline, devoted to assisting customers who encounter difficulties in accessing a company’s web content.

Those with questions about these emerging issues or looking for a preliminary assessment of their legal exposure under the ADA should contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Brigette N. Eagan, Esq., Counsel with the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at beagan@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

 

The D.C. Circuit Vacates NLRB Ruling on Driver Status in FedEx Case

In early March 2017, the D.C. Circuit in FedEx Home Delivery v. NLRB, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 3826 (D.C. Cir. 2017) vacated a National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “the Board”) ruling that Connecticut FedEx drivers constitute employees under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The D.C. court said that the case was indistinguishable from a 2009 case before the panel involving a group of Massachusetts drivers.

In 2007, single-route FedEx drivers based in Hartford, CT elected Teamsters Local 671 (“Union”) to represent them which lead to FedEx filing subsequent objections to the NLRB. While the appeal was pending, the D.C. Circuit decided FedEx Home Delivery v. NLRB (FedEx I), 563 F.3d 492 (D.C. Cir. 2009), finding that FedEx drivers based out of the company’s Wilmington, MA terminal constituted independent contractors under the NLRA. In its holding, the court vacated the NLRB’s order to engage with the union and denied the Board’s cross-motion for enforcement. The court held that the NLRB was bound to apply the common-law ten factor agency test as set forth in the Restatement (Second of Agency), but explained that rather than a control inquiry, that the emphasis of these factors should be on  “entrepreneurial opportunity” for gain or for loss as it relates to the determination of a worker’s status.  FedEx identified three specific entrepreneurial opportunities available to the drivers: (1) drivers’ ability to hire other drivers; (2) drivers’ ability to sell routes; and (3) drivers’ ability to operate multiple routes.  Persuaded by these arguments, the court held that the FedEx drivers were independent contractors.

In 2014, the NLRB issued a revised decision in FedEx Home Delivery, 361 N.L.R.B. No. 55 (Sept. 30, 2014) which found that the facts pertaining to the Hartford drivers and those discussed in FedEx I were “virtually identical.” Still, however, the NLRB declined to adopt the D.C. Circuit’s 2009 interpretation of the NLRA because it disagreed with the court’s emphasis on “entrepreneurial opportunity” as the key factor in determining a worker’s status. Specifically, it said that the Board should give weight to actual, not merely theoretical, entrepreneurial opportunity, and it should evaluate the constraints imposed by a company on the individual’s ability to pursue that opportunity. Moreover, it noted that FedEx unilaterally drafts, promulgates, and changes the terms of its agreements with drivers, a feature that weighs “heavily in favor of employee status” along with the Board’s view that the drivers lacked independence and were disallowed the initiative and decision-making authority normally associated with an independent contractor   The Board also found that FedEx engaged in unfair labor practices affecting commerce under the NLRA by refusing to recognize and bargain with the union.

In the present case, FedEx argued that the question had already been argued before the D.C. Circuit in FedEx I and involved the same parties, thus the same result should follow. The court agreed and denied the Board’s cross-application for enforcement, granted FedEx’s petitions for review, and vacated the Board’s orders. The D.C. Circuit noted that in FedEx I, the Board considered all common-law factors and was still persuaded that the drivers were independent contractors. The court also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court previously held that that the question whether a worker is an “employee” or “independent contractor” under the NLRA is a question of “pure” common-law agency principles that a court can review and does not require special administrative expertise.

The takeaway for employers is that in determining whether workers are employees or independent contractors, employers must remember that despite significant overlap, there are in fact different tests as related to the NLRA, federal taxes, the Fair Labor Standards Act, state wage and hour law, ERISA, the Affordable Care Act, and various other circumstances.  While the D.C. Circuit has for the moment clarified (or rather reinforced) its view as to the proper test under the NLRA, employers should always focus on where their greatest liability is and attempt to cater to the relevant test as much as possible.

For questions about independent contractors or trucking and logistics, please contact John Vreeland, Esq., Chair of the Transportation, Trucking & Logistics Group and a Partner in the Labor Law Practice Group at jvreeland@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 535-7118, or, Harris S. Freier, Esq., a Partner in the Firm’s Employment Law and Appellate Practice Groups, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 533-0777. Please also sign-up our free Labor & Employment Blog at www.labor-law-blog.com to keep up-to-date on the latest news and legal developments effecting your workforce.

How to Avoid Disney’s Not-So-Fairy Tale $3.8 Million Payment of Employee Back Wages

On Friday, March 17, 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) and two subsidiaries of The Walt Disney Co. (“Disney”), the Disney Vacation Club Management Corp., and the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. Inc., reached an agreement to resolve claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), requiring the payment of back wages of over $3.8 million to more than 16,000 employees of the two Florida-based Disney companies.

According to the DOL, Disney deducted a uniform (or “costume”) expense from employee pay, which lead some employees’ hourly rate to fall below the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour. The subsidiaries also did not compensate the employees for performing pre- and post-shift duties while additionally failing to maintain required time and payroll records.

As part of the agreement, Disney agreed to start training all Florida-based managers, supervisors, and non-exempt employees on what constitutes compensable worktime and emphasizing the need to record all records pertaining to time accurately.

There are certain steps that employers can do to avoid the significant damages Disney incurred including:

  • Maintain accurate payroll, time, and schedule related records. This is particularly important to our hospitality and restaurant clients where record keeping can be especially difficult.  Also, remember that under the FLSA, the records must be  maintained for a minimum of three years for payroll records and six years under New Jersey and New York law.
  • Deductions are an easy target for the plaintiffs’ bar. Employers must make sure that any deductions are legal under state law and that the deductions if permissible do not bring the affected employee below the state or federal minimum wage;
  • Perform a wage and hour self-audit every two years to avoid misclassification issues and to ensure your recordkeeping and pay practices are consistent with the law;
  • To avoid donning and duffing claims (claims involving changing into and out of uniforms, costumes, and protective equipment for example), employers must take care to distinguish between non-compensable time when changing into and out of the uniform is merely for the employees’ convenience as opposed to compensable time when the job cannot be accomplished without wearing the designated uniform or costume or safety equipment and it is impractical to arrive at work wearing same.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss best practices in complying with federal wage regulations, please contact John R. Vreeland, Esq., Partner & Chair of the  Wage and Hour Compliance Practice Group at jvreeland@nullgenovaburns.com or call 973-533-0777 or Harris S. Freier, Esq., a Partner in the Employment Law and Appellate practice groups, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com, or call 973-533-0777.  Mr. Vreeland and Mr. Freier routinely work together in defending wage and hour class actions.  Please visit our free Labor & Employment Blog at www.labor-law-blog.com to stay up-to-date on the latest news and legal developments affecting your workforce.

District of New Jersey Ruling Leaves Employers High and Dry as to Guidance on Dealing with Medical Marijuana Users

On February 21, 2017, the District of New Jersey dismissed a wrongful termination lawsuit by a medical marijuana user who claimed that the employer failed to accommodate his disability in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).  See Thomas Barrett v. Robert Half Corporation, et al., No. 15-624.  The case raises key issues for New Jersey employers whose employees are legally using medical marijuana, however, the court avoided dealing with the significant substantive issues for employers and their employees raised by medical marijuana, including preemption issues, by focusing on a defect in how the complaint was plead.

The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (“NJCUMMA”), protects medical marijuana patients “from arrest, prosecution, property forfeiture, and criminal and other penalties” for using medical marijuana to alleviate suffering from debilitating medical conditions.  Since the law was passed in 2010, ambiguities remain regarding the rights of employees who use medical marijuana.  Currently, the NJCUMMA does not require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for “the use of marijuana in any workplace.”  However, the statute is silent on use of medical marijuana outside of the workplace, and there is currently no case law clarifying this provision.  Employers who drug test their employees are obviously left in limbo because if an employee tests positive for marijuana, the employer will be hard pressed to prove that the positive test results from workplace use of marijuana as opposed to use outside of the workplace.

In Thomas Barrett v. Robert Half Corporation, et al., No. 15-6245, the plaintiff suffered chronic pain resulting from a car accident and was issued a license from the State of New Jersey Department of Health’s Medicinal Marijuana Program.  Mr. Barrett alleged that he notified his employer, Robert Half Corp., a staffing company, that he was issued a medical marijuana license and that it was for treatment of his disability.  Prior to a new work assignment, his supervisor required him to submit to a drug test, to which Mr. Barrett alleges he responded by again informing his employer that he was licensed to use medicinal marijuana.  He claimed that his employer responded by telling him not to worry about failing and to simply present his license at the time of the test.  Nevertheless, about a week after starting his new work assignment, Mr. Barret was terminated due to a positive drug test.

In moving to dismiss, the employer argued (i) the plaintiff failed to request accommodation with enough specificity, (ii) the NJCUMMA is preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) and should not prohibit employers from terminating employees whose conduct violates federal law, and (iii) even if not preempted by federal law, the NJCUMMA does not confer employment protections.

In the order dismissing the action, the court only ruled that Mr. Barrett failed to plead a request for accommodation of his disability, and therefore failed to state a claim.  The court held that it was insufficient for the plaintiff to simply notify his employer that he was licensed to use medical marijuana as treatment for his disability.  Instead, a plaintiff must allege that he requested an accommodation in connection with his disability.  By ruling strictly on whether the plaintiff requested an accommodation, the court left the other points raised in the employer’s motion to dismiss unaddressed – particularly, whether an employee who does properly request an accommodation has a right to such an accommodation under the NJLAD for medical marijuana use, assuming that any marijuana use takes places outside of the workplace.  Currently, there is legislation pending in the New Jersey State Senate and Assembly, Bill S-2161, that would make it unlawful for an employer to take adverse employment action (e.g., termination) against an employee for being enrolled in the State medical marijuana program or failing a drug test.  However, the bill has yet to come out of committee.  Moreover, even if the bill does become the law in New Jersey, it is an open question as to whether the law and the NJCUMMA are preempted under federal law by the CSA, especially with a new federal Department of Justice which has issued public comments indicating a desire to continue to strictly enforce marijuana prohibition.

As a practical matter, employers are in a bind because anyone who has a license to legally use medical marijuana is likely going to have a disability under the NJLAD (and possibly the Americans with Disabilities Act).  Plaintiff employees may try to conflate any adverse employment action as being related to the underlying disability as opposed to marijuana use.  As  a result, the standard advice to employers that they must have anti-discrimination policies in place, policies regarding reasonable accommodations, and training on these policies, is more important than ever.  Any adverse action against an employee based upon performance should always be backed up with the appropriate paper trail of performance reviews and/or employee discipline documents to help to show that the termination was not based upon a protected characteristic such as disability.

As to potential adverse action that an employer takes against legal medical marijuana users based solely on failing a drug test for marijuana, employers are in a difficult position.  For employers in the transportation and logistics industry where the federal Department of Transportation mandates drug testing and does not allow exceptions for medical marijuana, an employer is going to have a strong legal defense if a fired truck driver attempts to sue after being terminated for testing positive for marijuana, even if he or she has a license to use medical marijuana.  However, in other industries where there is no federal drug testing requirement, employers must carefully weigh the benefits and risks before taking adverse action against an employee for a failed drug test based upon marijuana if the employee has a legal license for medical marijuana.  Any employers dealing with issues involving medical marijuana should consult with an attorney as the law is constantly evolving in this area.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss employers’ obligations regarding medical marijuana users, please contact Harris S. Freier, Esq., of the firm’s Employment Law and Appellate practice groups, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com, or call 973-533-0777.  Please visit our free Labor & Employment Blog at www.labor-law-blog.com to stay up-to-date on the latest news and legal developments affecting your workforce.

What Pretext? The Tenth Circuit Shows the Value in Trucking & Transportation Employers Citing to Safety and Customer Complaints to Justify Discharge

On March 10, 2017, the Tenth Circuit in Henson v. AmeriGas Propane, Inc., no.: 16-7057, declined to revive a discrimination and wrongful discharge lawsuit in finding that the lower court was correct in its holding that that the former AmeriGas Propane, Inc. delivery driver who brought the claims had not shown that his termination was pretextual.  While this case originated out of Oklahoma, it provides beneficial guidance for our transportation trucking, and logistic clients.

In his initial complaint, filed in May 2015, Plaintiff Isaac Henson alleged that AmeriGas Propane, Inc. (“AmeriGas”) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (and subsequent Amendment) as well as Oklahoma’s Retaliatory Discharge Act for terminating his employment because his disabilities and/or because AmeriGas regarded him as disabled. Henson also asserted that he was terminated because he engaged in statutorily protected activity under Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation law.

Henson began working as a delivery driver for AmeriGas in May 2011. His responsibilities included filling and delivering propane tanks to commercial and residential customers. While executing those tasks in August 2012, he injured the middle finger of his right hand. AmeriGas attempted to accommodate him by assigning light work duties as needed. Despite this, Henson still required over sixty medical and occupational-therapy appointments and underwent hand surgery in April 2013. In September 2013, he advised AmeriGas that his doctors recommended a second surgery. During this time, Henson’s performance declined, though his initial performance appraisal was generally positive. There were repeated safety violations, including three separate incidents of Henson driving too fast and running a stop sign. In November 2012, he received a formal written warning in an employee disciplinary report for the safety violations. Also in April 2013, Henson received a second written warning and a four-day suspension for insubordination, a negative attitude, and customer service deficiencies. In May 2013, his performance appraisal reiterated AmeriGas’s safety concerns and advised him to be more positive toward the company. Ultimately, Henson was terminated in October 2013, with AmeriGas citing insubordination along with another safety violation: leaving the gauge open on a customer’s propane tank.

Dissatisfied with the termination, Henson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. He exhausted his administrative remedies but secured a right-to-sue letter, prompting him to file suit asserting that (1) AmeriGas violated the federal law when it fired him because of his hand impairment; and (2) AmeriGas violated the Oklahoma state law when it fired him in retaliation for engaging in statutorily protected activity. The district court found that Henson established a prima facie claim of discrimination under both federal and state law, however, it also found that AmeriGas established a legitimate and nondiscriminatory reason for termination. Moreover, the court said that AmeriGas was aware of Henson’s injury and its impact on his ability to perform his duties well before the need to go for a second surgery.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit rejected Henson’s pretext argument using a standard similar to the Third Circuit and found that Henson’s performance history outweighed any timing issues as to the discharge being close to Henson’s workplace injury. The court also found that Henson’s self-assessment of his performance was not enough to show pretext. Rather, it noted that it is the manager’s perception of the employee’s performance, as opposed to a subjective self-evaluation, that is relevant to review of legitimate and nondiscriminatory termination practices carried out in good faith by a company.

This case is useful for our clients in the transportation, trucking, and logistics industries because it shows that when an employer effectively uses written discipline and can cite to safety and/or customer complaints, this can provide a powerful counter to a plaintiff’s claims of pretext.  Employers in any industry should always try to ensure that there is a written and comprehensive record of discipline and/or performance reviews of employees to negate a plaintiff’s pretext argument.

For questions about employment issues involving the trucking and logistics industries, please contact John Vreeland, Esq., Chair of the Transportation, Trucking & Logistics Group and Partner in the Labor Law Practice Group at jvreeland@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 535-7118, or, Harris S. Freier, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Employment Law and Appellate Practice Groups, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 533-0777.  Please also sign-up for our free Labor & Employment Law Blog at www.labor-law-blog.com to keep up-to-date on the latest news and legal developments effecting your workforce.

Trump Blinks and Signs Revised Executive Order; States React Immediately

On March 6 President Trump signed a second Executive Order revoking his January Order and replacing it with Executive Order (“March Order”) effective March 16, 2017 that is intended to overcome court challenge. The March Order suspends for 90 days entry into the U.S. of nationals of six countries, but carves out limited exceptions for certain categories of affected aliens. After issuing the March Order, the Justice Department immediately asked the federal court in Seattle to halt Washington’s and Minnesota’s legal challenge from proceeding against the January Order and notified the Court notice that the Government plans instead to enforce the provisions of the March Order.  However, for the moment the Seattle lawsuit remains pending.

Under the March Order, entry by nationals of six countries -Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen- is suspended through June 14, 2017. The suspension of entry into the U.S. will apply only to foreign nationals from the six countries who 1) are outside the U.S. as of March 16, 2017, and 2) did not hold a valid visa as of 5 p.m. EST on January 27, 2017 and 3) do not have a valid visa as of March 16, 2017. The suspension of entry into the U.S. will not apply to U.S. permanent residents, any foreign national who is admitted to or paroled into the U.S. on or after March 16, 2017, any foreign national who has a document other than a visa valid on March 16, 2017 that permits the individual to travel in the U.S., any dual national of one of the six countries if the individual is traveling using a passport from the non-designated country, any foreign national traveling on a diplomatic visa, NATO visa, C-2 visa for travel to the U.N. or a G-1, 2, 3 or 4 visa, any foreign national granted asylum, and any refugee already permitted to be in the U.S. No immigrant or nonimmigrant visas issued before March 16, 2017 is being revoked by the March Order and any individual whose visa was revoked as a result of the January Order is entitled to a travel document permitting travel to and entry into the U.S.

Although the March Order does not list Iraq as a banned country, decisions about issuance of visas or granting entry to any Iraqi national will be subject to additional scrutiny to determine if the alien has connections to ISIS or other terrorist organizations, or otherwise poses a threat to national security or public safety.

The March Order also suspends all refugee travel into the U.S. under USRAP and suspends decisions on all refugee status applications through July 16, 2017. The January Order banned all Syrian refugees’ admission into the U.S. indefinitely. The Secretaries of State and Homeland Security retain the ability to jointly determine a refugee’s admission into the U.S. on a case-by-case basis so long as admission is in the national interest and poses no threat to national security and welfare. Finally, for fiscal year 2017 entry by refugees in excess of 50,000 is suspended until the President determines additional entries are in the country’s interest.

The first state to challenge the March Order was Hawaii which sued in Honolulu federal court claiming that the March Order results in an unconstitutional establishment of religion and inflicts immediate harm on Hawaii’s economy, education and tourism. U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson will hear Hawaii’s request for a temporary restraining order on March 15. New York’s Attorney General announced that New York will join Washington and Minnesota in the pending federal case in Seattle. Other states are expected to follow New York’s and Hawaii’s example.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how the March Executive Order affects your employees and your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Immigration Law Practice at 973-535-7129 or at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com.

Of Employees and Independent Contractors: The Ninth Circuit to Consider Where Truck Drivers Fall

On February 24, 2017, Senior U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick in the district of Arizona stayed a proposed class action in Virginia Van Dusen et al v. Swift Transportation Co., Inc. et al, No.: 2:10-cv-00899, against Swift Transportation Co., Inc. (“Swift Transportation”). The proposed class is comprised of about 600 members but could have implications for thousands of drivers for the company. This long-running case centers around claims that the trucking company incorrectly classifies its drivers as independent contractors. February’s ruling prevents any advancement until the Ninth Circuit hears the company’s challenge to the district court’s January 2017 ruling that its drivers’ contractor agreements were actually contracts of employment.

In the initial complaint, plaintiffs alleged that Swift Transportation incorrectly classified them as independent contractors as opposed to employees and failed to pay them proper wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and under various provisions of the New York Labor Law and the California Labor Code. Plaintiffs sought relief from the court, requesting it enter an order declaring that Swift Transportation violated the FLSA, certifying the class, and awarding damages for unpaid wages, reimbursement for illegal deductions from wages, and an equal amount in liquidated damages and interest as well as attorneys’ fees. Illegal deductions, such as fuel costs, maintenance and repairs, and insurance, can be substantial in a trucking case, which makes trucking companies popular targets of class actions.

According to documents initially submitted to the court, twenty-five percent of Swift Transportation’s drivers worked in the company’s “owner operator division” and were considered independent contractors. Three-quarters of the trucks were driven by employees. The plaintiffs maintained that a majority of the “owner operators” did not own anything at all, but were instead selected by Swift to lease trucks from an affiliated company. They further argued that they should be considered employees because much of their day-to-day operations were within Swift Transportation’s control and oversight.

In determining whether the contractor agreements were exempt from arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and the Arizona Arbitration Act (“AAA”), the court noted that § 1 of the FAA excludes “contracts of employment”. In assessing whether the Swift Transportation’s contractor agreements were exempt from the FAA, the federal district court looked to the four corners of the agreements. The agreements specified the type of work performed by the drivers, clearly showing that Swift Transportation’s “central mission” is delivering freight to customers across the country. The district court noted that the fact that its employees were doing the work of transporting on the company’s behalf suggested an employment relationship. Swift Transportation maintained, however, that the drivers were giving substantial autonomy and were free to do as much or as little as they wanted in order to profit as an independent driver. Other factors contained within the agreements bolstered the employment relationship, according to the court, including provisions regarding Swift’s control of its drivers’ schedules, load-determination and assignment, and per-mile rates paid to drivers. Moreover, these agreements were automatically extended on a year-to-year basis, a feature of employee status where the relationship is of possibly infinite duration. Thus, the court found that, within the four corners of the agreements, the contracts were those of employment and were exempt from arbitration under both the FAA and the AAA.

The federal district court also looked to other evidence to determine whether the independent drivers were employees. It noted that the plaintiffs had limited autonomy when it came to load assignments and payment structures. The fact that the plaintiffs were paid on a per-mile basis as opposed to time spent at work did not, in the court’s view, make the compensation project-based. Also, Plaintiffs were not paid after completion of a specific job but rather received settlement payments on a weekly basis similar to the regular paydays of Swift Transportation’s employee drivers. Even though Swift Transportation argued that plaintiffs were free to do as much or as few miles for the company as needed to profit as an independent driver, the combination of agreements and leases dictated a minimum amount plaintiffs needed to drive in order to pay for weekly rentals of leased trucks. As a result, the amount independent drivers had to drive for the company was the same as the employee drivers. It was also impractical for plaintiffs to “moonlight” or to turn down cargo loads in hopes of larger ones as there was no guarantee there would be one, which undermined the alleged freedom available to the independent drivers.

The lower court’s review of the agreements and of the additional factors is in line with the approach taken by the Ninth Circuit generally. In 2014, the Ninth Circuit held that the most important factor in determining a worker’s status is the amount of control exercised by the putative employer over the worker’s position. However, the Ninth Circuit also reviews the “totality of the circumstances,” similar to the test used by the U.S. Department of Labor when evaluating independent contractor status under the FLSA.

What is troubling for companies operating in multiple states is there is no complete consistency amongst the circuits as to how to assess the issue of employee versus independent contractor status. Even within the circuits themselves different tests are often used depending on from which state the case originated. Within Third Circuit, for example, there are several approaches. New Jersey expressly rejects the common law right to control test and instead courts apply the ABC test under N.J.S.A. 43:21-19(i)(6)(A)-(C):

  1. Such individual has been and will continue to be free from control or direction over the performance of such service, both under his contract of service and in fact; and
  2. Such service is either outside the usual course of the business for which such service is performed, or that such service is performed outside of all the places of business of the enterprise for which such service is performed; and
  3. Such individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business.

Delaware, on the other hand, uses the common law right to control test and courts focus on the amount of control “retained or exercised by the owner.” Delaware courts also look to the element of continuous subjection to the will of the principal, which is a defining factor in the worker-owner relationship.

In Pennsylvania, courts look to the common law factors which mirror those considered in the four corners assessment by the Ninth Circuit: control of manner work is to be done; responsibility for result only; terms of agreement between the parties; the nature of the work or occupation; skill required for performance; whether one employed is engaged in a distinct occupation or business; which party supplies the tools; whether payment is by time or by the job; whether the work is part of the regular business of the employer, and also the right to terminate the employment at any time.

While the Swift Transportation case will be instructive in determining whether truckers can be treated as independent contractors as opposed to employees, the lack of consistency among the circuits means that independent truckers will continue to be subject to challenge. Employers, therefore, need to be very careful in classifying their drivers as independent contractors, especially if their job duties and responsibilities are not materially different from those of its employee-drivers and if company maintains control over how the drivers perform their work.

For questions about independent contractors or trucking and logistics, please contact John Vreeland, Esq., Chair of the Transportation, Trucking & Logistics Group and a Partner in the Labor Law Practice Group at jvreeland@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 535-7118, or, Harris S. Freier, Esq., a Partner in the Firm’s Employment Law and Appellate Practice Groups, at hfreier@nullgenovaburns.com or (973) 533-0777. Please also sign-up our free Labor & Employment Blog at www.labor-law-blog.com to keep up-to-date on the latest news and legal developments effecting your workforce.

New York Issues Regulations Implementing its Trailblazing Paid Family Leave Law

Last year, the New York State Legislature passed the country’s most wide-ranging paid family leave law, providing employees with wage replacement during time away from their job in order to bond with a child, care for a close relative with a serious health condition, or to help relieve family pressures when someone is called to active military service, commencing on January 1, 2018.  On February 22, 2017, New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the filing of official regulations implementing New York’s Paid Family Leave Law.  The regulations provide important guidance to both employers and insurance carriers.

Covered Employers – Unlike the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which applies only to businesses with 50 or more employees, the New York paid family leave program is required for all private employers in New York.  Public employers may opt in.

Eligible Employees – Employees become eligible for paid family leave after working full-time for their employer for 26 weeks or part-time for 175 days.

Phase-In Schedule – Unlike the FMLA, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to take care of one’s family member or oneself, New York’s family leave law provides paid leave.  The program starts on January 1, 2018 and will fully phase in over the course of 4 years.  For the first year of the program, employees will be entitled to 8 weeks of family leave and 50% of their average weekly wages.  Starting January 1, 2019, employees will be entitled to 10 weeks and 55% of their average weekly wages.  On January 1, 2020, employees will still only be entitled to 10 weeks, but will be afforded 60% of their average weekly wages.  Finally, starting January 1, 2021, employees will be entitled to 12 weeks and 67% of their average weekly wages.

Qualifying Reasons – Paid family leave will be available to eligible employees to care for a new child (including newly adopted and foster children) or a close relative with a serious health condition, or to relieve family pressures created when a family member is called to active military service.  This leave is not available, however, to care for an employee’s own serious health condition, which is available under the FMLA.

Required Documentation – Employees will be required to present certain documentation to justify requests for family leave.  Documentation may include a certification from a doctor treating an employee’s family member.  New parents will also need to present birth certificates, adoption papers, or foster placement letters.  Employees wishing to address military family needs must provide military duty papers.

Reemployment – Upon return to work, employees will be entitled to resume the same or a comparable job.  The paid family leave law also provides for a continuation of health care benefits while on leave.

Employers’ “To Do” List – There are several steps businesses must take now to ensure compliance with New York’s paid family leave law.  Employers must either purchase a paid family leave insurance policy or self-insure.  The program will be fully funded by employees’ payment of premiums through payroll deductions, which employers can begin taking in July of 2017 (for coverage beginning on January 1, 2018).  In addition, employers and/or carriers must adopt a method for employees to request paid family leave, either by using the official “Request for Paid Family Leave” form (currently form PFL-1) or another method that solicits the same information as that form.  Employers must also inform all employees in writing of their rights and obligations under the new law, and eligibility information must also be included in an Employee Handbook.  Governor Cuomo has also launched a new helpline (844) 337-6303 to answer questions and provide New Yorkers with more information about the new program.

For questions about New York State’s new paid family leave law, how it interacts with the FMLA, and how to develop a compliant paid family leave policy, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.  Please visit our free Labor & Employment Blog at www.labor-law-blog.com to stay up-to-date on the latest news and legal developments affecting your workforce.

Union Fund Uses NY False Claims Act to Blow Whistle on Prevailing Wage Violator and Recover $33,750

In the first reported case of its kind in New York, in February a union fund received a five-figure settlement payment from a Harlem-based general contractor that worked on a New York City affordable housing project after the fund blew the whistle on the contractor’s failure to pay prevailing wages. The fund filed a whistleblower complaint under the N.Y. False Claims Act, which allows a whistleblower to file a qui tam lawsuit if it knows of and reports violations of the Act. The Act makes liable entities that knowingly present to the state or local government false or fraudulent claims for payment or avoid their obligations to pay the state or a local government. State of New York v. A. Aleem Construction, Inc.

A whistleblower that files a successful claim under the Act can recover 15 to 25 percent of any recovery if the State intervenes in the matter and converts the qui tam action into an attorney general enforcement action. If no State intervention, the whistleblower can recover between 25 and 30 percent of the total recovery. New York is among 29 states, including New Jersey, plus D.C. that offer an incentive payment or “bounty” to persons who blow the whistle on prevailing wage violators. A whistleblower who plans or initiates the violation that is the basis of the action can recover but in a reduced amount.

The union fund’s whistleblower complaint caused the State to investigate and determine that the general contractor violated prevailing wage laws by failing to pay laborers working on the project the required prevailing wages and benefits and failing to maintain proper payroll records. Under the settlement, the general contractor agreed to pay $225,000 to resolve the Action, $33,750 of which, or 15%, was paid to the fund.

The bounty paid to the union fund for reporting to the State violations of prevailing wage laws serves as another wake-up call to the employer community that claims for violations of prevailing wage laws can come from various sources including even the unions and their funds that negotiate and benefit from the wages and benefits, and the added incentive of a bounty in exchange for blowing the whistle is likely to encourage more unions and their funds to follow suit. In addition, on February 21 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals’ dismissal of a 2011 suit brought under the federal False Claims Act by two former Wells Fargo employees who sought damages on behalf of taxpayers for fraud occurring during their employment with the bank. The Court vacated the dismissal of the lawsuit and in the process endorsed broader support for whistleblower claims at the federal level. Bishop v. Wells Fargo & Co. The federal False Claims Act provides similar encouragement, not limited to employees, to blow the whistle on violators of the Davis-Bacon Act.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how these state and federal whistleblower protections apply to your employees and your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Wage and Hour Compliance Practice Group and  at 973-535-7129 or at pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com.

Appellate Court Expands Rice Notice Requirements

Following the February 8, 2017 Appellate Division decision in Kean Federation of Teachers v. Morell, public bodies must review their processes for issuing Rice notices and making available meeting minutes to the public.

In its decision, the Appellate Division expanded the application of the Rice notice requirements to include all situations in which the public body intends to take action on an agenda item which will affect an employee’s “employment appointment, termination of employment, terms and conditions of employment, evaluation of the performance of, promotion or [discipline]” of its employees. This requirement attaches to all agenda items, regardless of whether the public body intends to hold a discussion about the matter.  The Court reasoned that presenting a Rice notice for all employees on a particular agenda allows the public body to have “flexibility to discuss matters in executive session when necessary and affords the affected employees the opportunity” to request a public discussion.

In the same decision, the Court also evaluated the timeframe required for a public body to release its meeting minutes so that it meets the OMPA’s requirement of making them “promptly available”.  At issue was a set of minutes from the September 15, 2014 meeting, which took 94 days to release.  A second set, from the December 6, 2014 meeting took 58 days to release.  Although the Court did not expressly define a timeline to comply with making minutes “promptly available,” it suggested that a reasonable timeframe for release is within 30-45 days.  Even without a clear rule, the Court makes it clear that a 2 or 3 month delay is not justifiable, and mandates public bodies to “adopt a protocol that makes the availability of its meeting minutes a priority.”

The Court’s clear directive to the parties is applicable to all public bodies effective immediately.  Public bodies should review their protocols to ensure that Rice notices be issued in advance of taking action on agenda items involving employment matters.  Public bodies must also review its processes to ensure an efficient method of producing required meeting minutes (including those which are subject to redaction) relatively soon after receipt of a request.

For additional guidance regarding compliance with the Court’s mandate, please contact Jennifer Roselle at 973-646-3324 or jroselle@nullgevnoaburns.com. Ms. Roselle is Counsel in the Firm’s Labor Law and Education Law Practice Groups.