Be Reasonable: Employees May Not be Able to Request a “Few Weeks or a Few Months” of Leave as an Accommodation Under the ADA

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently determined that a request for indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Facts

Stanley Kieffer worked for CPR Restoration & Cleaning Service, LLC (“CPR LLC”) in a supervisory role, until he injured his shoulder in August 2013. Kieffer applied for, and received worker’s compensation and also requested, as a reasonable accommodation, a driver because he could not drive on the job with his injured shoulder. This request was denied. Kieffer then requested, and was granted leave beginning in September 2013. Kieffer told his employer that he would return to work on November 13, 2013. When Kieffer unexpectedly returned to work on November 4, 2013, he was subsequently terminated.

Kieffer filed a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and then began to work for CPR Restoration, Inc. (“CPR, Inc.”), which is owned by the same individual as CPR LLC. This new position required Kieffer to commute from Pennsylvania to Northern New Jersey every day. Due to a disagreement over whether his relocation to New Jersey would be paid for, Kieffer claimed that the decision to not pay for his move amounted to a constructive discharge and retaliation, and he quit the company in June 2014.

District Court’s Decision

Kieffer filed suit in the District Court against both CPR LLC and CPR, Inc., alleging violations of the ADA, the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and applicable state law. Finding for CPR LLC and CPR, Inc., the District Court found that the companies were not joint/integrated employers under the FMLA, and that Kieffer was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because he could not show that he could perform the “essential functions” of his positions with or without reasonable accommodations. The District Court also determined that neither company retaliated against Kieffer under the ADA, FMLA, or applicable state law.

Third Circuit’s Decision

The Third Circuit found that CPR LLC’s denial of a driver was proper because even with such an accommodation, Kieffer could not perform any physical labor, which was an essential function of his job. The Third Circuit reiterated that whether a task is an essential function is generally a fact-intensive inquiry. Factors used to determine whether a function is essential include the 1) employer’s judgment, 2) written job descriptions, 3) time spent on the job performing the function, 4) consequences of not requiring a worker to perform the function, 5) terms of a collective-bargaining agreement, 6) work experience of past employees in the job, and 7) work experience of current employees in similar jobs.

On appeal, Kieffer also argued that the leave of absence he requested would have allowed him to perform his essential functions after he returned from leave. However, there was no evidence that the leave was requested for a definite, rather than an open-ended, period of time. Following other circuits, the Third Circuit found that Kieffer’s request for leave was considered to be indefinite, because testimony showed that his request for leave was “worded loosely as being for a few weeks or a few months.” Upholding the District Court’s decision, the Third Circuit stated, “The basis for such a holding reflects the fact that an accommodation of a short period of definite leave would enable an employee to perform his essential job functions in the near future … The request for leave here specified neither a leave for a definite period, nor a return in the future.”

The Third Circuit also found that Kieffer was not retaliated against for requesting a leave of absence two months before his termination. The Third Circuit noted that it had previously ruled that over two months between protected activity and adverse employment activity—without more—is insufficient to prove that his request for a break “was the likely reason for h[is] termination.”

Finally, the Third Circuit found that even assuming that CPR Inc. reneged on its promise to relocate Kieffer, there was no evidence to suggest any hostility or antagonism between the filing of his EEOC claim and the denial of moving costs. Thus, Kieffer’s constructive discharge claim was also dismissed.

Bottom Line

Proceed with caution when employees request leave under the ADA. Vague requests for unspecified amounts of leave are not “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA and employers must work with employees to guarantee that the employee’s request for leave is for a definite amount of time so that the employee can recover and perform the essential functions of their job. Be mindful, however, that the EEOC may consider the request a request of up to “a few months” of leave, as a leave for a definite amount rather than an open-ended (i.e. “indefinite”) leave.

For more information about ADA accommodations and requests for leave, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

Putting Employees in the “Penalty Box” Could Have Courts Blowing the Whistle on You

While the National Hockey League’s Capitals are in Washington D.C. celebrating their Stanley Cup win, a Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey may be in hot water for putting an employee in the penalty box following complaints about department misconduct.

Last month, the Appellate Division held that the transfer of an employee to a “less desirable” position can be considered an act of retaliation that violates the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). This is true even if the employee’s primary terms and conditions of employment – compensation, hours, and physical location – remain unchanged after the transfer.

Jeffrey Scozzafava, a detective with the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, had been assigned to the forensic Crime Scene Investigation Unit since his hire in 2007.  In 2015, after he complained about the mishandling of evidence and deficient casework in his unit, he was transferred to the fugitive squad. Scozzafava brought a claim for retaliation against his employer. The Prosecutor’s Office argued that he did not suffer an adverse employment action because Scozzafava’s rank, position, pay and benefits remained the same, and it arguably improved his scheduled working hours.  Therefore, the Prosecutor’s Office argued, the move was a lateral transfer and not a demotion.

The Appellate Division disagreed and held that there was more to the analysis than merely ensuring that an employee is not terminated, suspended, or demoted after making a complaint, and that all of the attendant circumstances surrounding the employment action will be closely examined.

Scozzafava had previously been a forensic detective with the New Jersey State Police, and had 12 years of extensive training and experience in the forensic field prior to his employment with the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office. He was a member of numerous forensic professional associations, devoted time as an instructor, and was qualified as an expert in various courts.  His abrupt transfer to the fugitive squad deprived him of using and building upon his twenty years of expertise in the forensic field.

The Court acknowledged that “not every employment action that makes an employee unhappy constitutes an actionable adverse action,” but held that under the circumstances of this case, the transfer was “objectively demeaning” to Scozzafava. It certainly did not strengthen the employer’s argument that when asked for the reasoning behind the transfer, Scozzafava’s lieutenant told him “everybody does time in the penalty box.”

Scozzafava also claimed that his transfer to the fugitive squad offered fewer opportunities to earn overtime pay. While the lower court found that the potential for overtime was “too nebulous” to be considered as part of an employee’s compensation, the higher court suggested that this could be independent grounds for the finding of a retaliatory act.  It has already been established by the New Jersey Supreme Court that “any reduction in an employee’s compensation” is considered an adverse employment action, and the Appellate Division suggests that reduced opportunities for overtime, standing alone, would qualify as a reduction in pay.

Bottom Line:  Here, the employer was well aware that its transfer of Scozzafava was not neutral, and the purpose was admittedly to put Scozzafava “in the penalty box.”  The new standard emerging from this decision expands the inquiry into the type of employment action that is considered retaliatory.  In addition to a review of the standard terms and conditions of employment – compensation, benefits, hours, and job title, the employee’s skills, training, and job history will be examined to determine whether the transfer is truly lateral, or whether it instead could be considered “objectively demeaning” – a phrase the Court twice repeated in its decision.  If it can be, and it comes on the heels of an employee objection or complaint about conduct that the employee reasonably believes is unlawful, the employer could face exposure for an act of retaliation. It is important to carefully review any management decision that could appear as if the purpose of the employment action is to bench an employee for not being a team player. A job transfer intended to be punishing will likely be flagged by the courts.

“Burn Files” and Employee Self-Help: Effective Policies Protect Documents Wrongfully Taken by Former Employee

A New Jersey appellate court recently upheld the disqualification of a former employee’s attorneys in a whistleblower claim against his former employer, because the employee had improperly taken documents containing privileged attorney-client communications to use against the employer “when they try to get him.”

Facts

The defendant, Maquet Getinge Group (“Maquet”), a German pharmaceutical company, designs, develops, manufactures, and distributes medical devices.  Because of the medical and technological focus of defendant’s business, Maquest maintains sensitive research and development data, new products, quality processes and procedures and protocols for the preparation of inspections by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) on its computer systems.  Maquet had in place comprehensive policies designed to protect its confidential, proprietary information, including a “Standards of Conduct” policy, an “End User Acceptable Use Policy.”  Plaintiff, Oscar Sanchez (“Sanchez”), was employed by Maquet as the Chief Quality and Compliance Officer for approximately 18 months, until he was terminated in April 2015.  As a condition of his employment, Sanchez and other similarly situated employees had to sign a “Confidential Information, Invention Assignment, and Non-Compete Agreement.”  This agreement contained, inter alia, a “Covenant Not to Disclose” and a provision on “Return of Company Documents.”  Two months prior to his termination, Sanchez was disciplined after an investigation into numerous complaints about his conduct and deportment involving employees who reported to him.  After receiving the complaints, Sanchez informed a Senior Vice President of Marketing at Maquet that “he had personally retained copies of all kinds of Maquet-owned documentation – which he referred to as his ‘burn files’ and which included copies of . . . two executives’ hard drives and a binder full of emails and documents,” which he allegedly told his co-worker he “would use the ‘burn files’ to “f***” Maquet ‘when they tried to get him.’”

On July 2, 2015, Sanchez filed a complaint against Maquet alleging he had been wrongfully terminated for whistleblowing activities, in violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”).  Maquet served Sanchez with its First Request for the Production of Documents in October 2015, to which plaintiff responded on February 1, 2016.  Upon receipt of the documents, Maquet claimed the documents plaintiff’s counsel had produced were owned by Maquet and had been improperly taken by Sanchez without Maquet’s knowledge or consent. Further, Maquet claimed the documents produced contained privileged attorney-client communications between Maquet’s staff and its attorneys, including correspondence regarding FDA compliance issues, results of third-party audits, budgeting issues, research and development, quality processes and procedures, and FDA findings.

Lower Court Decision

Defendant moved to preclude plaintiff from using these documents against defendant, and to remove plaintiff’s chosen counsel and his firm from continuing to represent plaintiff in the case.  In its decision, the lower court rejected plaintiff’s argument that Maquet had waived the attorney-client privilege. The Judge then found that Plaintiff’s chosen counsel “knew or should have known the material was privileged” yet failed “to promptly notify the opposing side that they had received privileged information” until nine (9) months after the case had been initiated. In disqualifying chosen counsel from serving as plaintiff’s counsel, the Judge found he would neither be harmed in the prosecution of the case nor that he would be unable to secure competent substitute counsel, as the case was still in its early stages.

Appellate Court’s Decision

Sanchez appealed arguing that the motion judge erred in reaching her decision to disqualify his chosen counsel without conducting an evidentiary hearing and that the judge misapplied the multi-factor analysis the NJ Supreme Court established in the seminal case, Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp. The Appellate Division rejected these arguments and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The Appellate Division concluded the motion judge properly found the documents in question to be covered by the attorney-client privilege, particularly finding that the motion judge had noted the documents in dispute contained communications between Sanchez, Maquet’s Global Chief Quality Assurance & Regulatory Officer, and Maquet’s General Counsel. The record also indicated the documents included emails labeled “ATTORNEY CLIENT PRIVILEGE” by plaintiff. The Appellate Division found no legal basis to question the motion judge’s conclusion that Maquet’s counsel was included in the communications to offer legal advice and guidance if he so chose.

The Appellate Division then rejected as untimely and legally unnecessary, plaintiff’s argument that the motion judge should have conducted an evidentiary hearing to consider the Quinlan factors.  Quinlan set forth seven (7) factors to consider when an employee may take or use documents belonging to his or her employer. The first consideration a judge must make is “how the employee came to have possession of, or access to, the document.” In reviewing the record, the court found that Sanchez removed the documents at issue in direct violation of Maquet’s policies related to confidential documents containing proprietary information in an act that was outside of his ordinary duties because he wanted to [get] the company when they tried to get him.  The court also noted that Sanchez copied the documents to share with his attorneys for the purpose of evaluating whether he had “a viable cause of action” against Maquet and conversely, that Maquet had a strong interest in keeping the materials confidential.

Finally, while recognizing that the disqualification of counsel is a harsh discretionary remedy that must be used sparingly, the Appellate Division concluded that Sanchez’ extra-judicial self-help measures deprived Maquet of the opportunity to prevent the disclosure of the privileged information and that plaintiff’s counsel’s unreasonable delay in disclosing this information rendered futile any attempt to mitigate this harm.

Bottom Line

Employers need to maintain robust policies related to maintaining and access to proprietary and confidential information, and in appropriate circumstances, agreements like those used by Maquet. These policies should: (1) set forth what materials are confidential or proprietary; (2) specify who within the company is permitted access to the proprietary and confidential information, whether by job title, level, need to know basis, etc.; and (3) set forth the purpose for which the employee is granted access and any limitations on access to the proprietary and confidential information. These policies and agreements will be critical in allowing a court to determine the employee was unauthorized in taking the documents and acted outside their ordinary duties of employment.

For more information about the potential impacts of this ruling or what steps your company can take to effectively prevent and address whistleblower complaints, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

Christie Vetoes Expansion of New Jersey Family Leave & Increased Minimum Wage

On July 21, 2017, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie conditionally vetoed two bills that would have expanded New Jersey’s pioneering paid Family Leave Act and raised minimum wage for certain transportation center service workers.  Under the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA), which applies to New Jersey companies with 50 or more employees, workers are eligible to receive up to 12 weeks of continuous leave during a given 24-month period to care for a newly born or adopted child, parent, a child under 18, spouse, or civil union partner who has a serious health condition requiring in-patient care, continuing medical treatment or medical supervision.  The leave is partially paid, and eligible employees can generally receive up to $633 per week.

The Bill (A4927) would have extended the NJFLA’s coverage to employers with 20 or more employees and expanded the definition of “family member” to include siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and parents-in-law.  Moreover, the Bill would have doubled the maximum number of weeks of family temporary disability leave benefits from 6 weeks to 12 weeks, increased available intermittent leave from 42 days to 84 days, and raised the weekly cap on paid benefits to $932, depending on the claimant’s income.

Governor Christie denounced the Bill’s supporters as disregarding the increased cost to taxpayers and the potentially adverse impact the bill would have on small businesses in New Jersey.

The minimum wage bill (A4870) would have significantly raised New Jersey’s minimum wage for employees at Newark Liberty International Airport, Newark Penn Station, and the Hoboken Terminal, from $10.10 to $17.98 per hour.  Incidentally, Christie vetoed a bill last year that would have raised New Jersey’s minimum wage from its current $8.44 to $15.00 per hour.  The New Jersey Business & Industry Association, considering the vetoes to be a victory to New Jersey employers, stated that the minimum wage bill would have set “a terrible precedent by circumventing the collective bargaining process and imposing backdoor wage and benefit increases by statute.”

For more information on these vetoes and current laws regarding family leave, minimum wage, or other applicable leave laws, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullnullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullnullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

New District of New Jersey Case Shows Importance of Requiring Drivers to Form Corporate Entities in Misclassification Cases

Late last month, District of New Jersey Judge Robert B. Kugler partially granted FedEx Ground Package Systems Inc. (“FedEx”)’s Motion to Dismiss in a trucking misclassification case.  The court dismissed several claims but preserved the plaintiff’s wage claim.  One key in getting several of the claims dismissed for FedEx was that it had required the plaintiffs to form LLCs or corporations prior to contracting with them.

In Carrow v. FedEx Group Package Systems, Inc., No.: 16-3026, plaintiffs brought claims against FedEx arising under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), misrepresentation, rescission, New Jersey Wage Payment Law (“NJWPL”), and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The contract between the driver plaintiffs and FedEx classified the drivers as independent contractors and, for some agreements, first required the drivers to create a limited liability company or corporation and sign the agreement through the business entity.  Plaintiffs argued that despite language in the operating agreements, they were treated as employees as the agreements regulated the vehicle appearance, vehicle maintenance, liability insurance, driver reports, driver uniforms, and driver service areas.  FedEx was also responsible for determining the prices charged for services, route schedules, electronic equipment used, forms for paperwork, and approval of substitutes and assistants. It also actively monitored how drivers operated their vehicles, carry packages, and completed paperwork to ensure adherence to company policies.

Based on the fact that the name plaintiffs had formed corporate entities at FedEx’s request and therefore as individuals were not direct parties to the operating agreements with FedEx, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims of breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and rescission.  The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s NJCFA claim because the plaintiffs’ theory was that the fraud related to FedEx’s employment of the plaintiffs which is not a basis for a NJCFA claim.  Further, the court held that plaintiffs could not state a cognizable claim under the NJCFA because business opportunities are not covered by the NJCFA.  The court did, however, allow several claims to proceed, most importantly, the plaintiff’s NJWPL wage claim finding that the fact that the plaintiffs were not parties to the operating agreements was not in and of itself enough on a motion to dismiss to determine if an employment relationship existed between the plaintiffs and FedEx.

For our clients in the transportation, trucking, and logistics industries, requiring that drivers form LLCs or corporations before entering into contracts with them helps to defeat misclassification claims.  However, as this case shows, corporate status is not enough by itself to definitively defeat a misclassification claim as it is one of many factors that a court will consider.

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.

Second, Eleventh and Seventh Circuits Disagree Whether Title VII Extends to Claims of Sexual Orientation Discrimination

On March 27 the Second Circuit held that Title VII does not provide protection against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. In Christiansen v. Omnicom Group Inc., the plaintiff alleged that his employer discharged him because of his sexual orientation and his nonconformity to gender stereotypes.  On appeal to the Second Circuit, the employer sought dismissal of the claims, and argued that claims of sexual orientation discrimination cannot be brought under Title VII.  Plaintiff urged the court to expand Title VII’s scope to reach these claims and, alternatively, that his suit claimed sexual stereotyping, as opposed to sexual orientation discrimination.  The Second Circuit held that it was bound by Second Circuit precedent in this regard and the plaintiff could not state a cognizable claim for sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII.  The Christensen court relied heavily on the Second Circuit’s 2000 decision in Simonton v. Runyon where the court held that Title VII does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.

The Christensen court observed that the landscape of sexual orientation and the law have changed significantly since Simonton.  Most notably, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and in 2015, held that same-sex couples have the right to marry.  However, the Christensen court found that neither of these decisions relates to Title VII protections, but instead they reflect a change in social and judicial perceptions regarding protections for same-sex couples.

The Eleventh Circuit is in agreement with the Second Circuit.  However, on April 4 the Seventh Circuit en banc held that sexual orientation discrimination is cognizable under Title VII. Hively v. Ivy Tech Comm. College. The Seventh Circuit reversed a Circuit panel that found for the employer with reasoning consistent with the Christiansen decision. The EEOC’s enforcement position during the Obama Administration was that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by Title VII, although it remains to be seen whether this will change under the current administration.

Given the split in the Circuits and the rapid development of the law in this area, employers cannot ignore discrimination or harassment claims based on sexual orientation.  Several jurisdictions already have state and local laws that prohibit these workplace behaviors, including New Jersey, New York, and New York City.  Employers must review their anti-harassment and discrimination policies to ensure compliance not only with Title VII but also with state and local laws, and promptly and effectively respond to complaints of unlawful harassment and discrimination.

For more information on this decision, on the applicability of Title VII to your organization, or to ensure compliant employment practices, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

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.

 

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.

EEOC Releases 2016 Enforcement Data: Charges Increase, Downward Trend in Litigation & Monetary Recovery, LGBT Charges Highlighted

Each year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) releases data detailing the charges of workplace discrimination it receives, the number of enforcement suits filed and resolved, and any areas of targeted investigations and compliance initiatives from the prior year.  On January 18, 2017, the EEOC released its Fiscal Year 2016 Enforcement and Litigation Data summarizing its findings.

Rising Number of Discrimination Charges – According to the EEOC, in 2016 it received 91,503 charges of discrimination, making 2016 the second consecutive year that the agency has seen an increase in the number of charges.  2016 also marks the third consecutive year in which retaliation was the most frequently filed charge.  Below is a chart summarizing the EEOC’s breakdown of the categories of charges filed in 2016 along with a comparison to those charges filed in New Jersey and New York:

  National New Jersey New York
Retaliation:  

42,018 (45.9%)

 

731 (1.7% of total Retaliation charges in US)  

1,604 (3.8% of total Retaliation charges in US)

 

Race:  

32,309 (35.3%)

 

624 (1.9% of total Race charges in US)  

1,084 (3.4% of total Race charges in US)

 

Disability:  

28,073 (30,7%)

 

583 (2.1% of total Disability charges in US)  

1,061 (3.8% of total Disability charges in US)

 

Sex:  

26,934 (29.4%)

 

500 (1.9% of total Sex charges in US)  

1,202 (29% of total Sex charges in US)

 

Age:  

20,857 (22.8%)

 

437 (2.1% of total Age charges in US)  

865 (4.1% of total Age charges in US)

 

National

Origin:

9,840 (10.8%)

 

254 (2.6% of total National Origin charges in US)  

601 (6.1% of total National Origin charges in US)

 

Religion:  

3,825 (4.2%)

 

104 (2.7% of total Religion charges in US)  

180 (4.7% of total Religion charges in US)

 

Color:  

3,102 (3.4%)

 

42 (1.4% of total Color charges in US)  

208 (6.7% of total Color charges in US)

 

Equal Pay:  

1,075 (1.2%)

 

Info not available Info not available
Genetic

Information:

 

238 (.3%) Info not available Info not available

Steady Increase in Charges Filed by LGBT Individuals – For the first time, the EEOC included details in its year end summary about sex discrimination charges filed specifically by members of the LGBT community.  In fiscal year 2016, it settled 1,650 of such charges, recovering $4.4 million.  This accounts for roughly 40% of the 4,000 sex discrimination charges filed by LGBT individuals since fiscal year 2013, which indicates a notable, steady rise in the number of charges filed by members of the LGBT community.  Also trending are the issues involving transgendered employees’ restroom rights.  In July 2015, the EEOC ruled that denying an employee equal access to a common restroom corresponding to the employee’s gender identity constitutes sex discrimination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as does conditioning an employee’s such right on proof that the employee underwent a medical procedure, and/or restricting a transgendered employee to a single-user restroom.

Overall Decrease in Monetary Awards – The EEOC recovered a total of over $482 million in fiscal year 2016, down from the $525 million in 2015, broken down as follows:

  • $347.9 million for private-sector, state, and local government employees through mediation, conciliation, and settlements;
  • $52.2 million through litigations; and
  • $82 million for federal employees.

Downward Trend in Litigation – Over 76% of cases that were referred to mediation in 2016 were resolved successfully, though conciliation had a lower success rate of only 44%.  Litigation by the EEOC is experiencing a downward trend, with only 165 active cases on the EEOC’s docket at the end of 2016, as opposed to the 218 that existed at the end of 2015.  In addition, the EEOC filed only 86 lawsuits alleging discrimination in 2016, down from its 142 filed in 2015 and 133 in 2014.

New Online Charge Status System – The EEOC launched digital services allowing employers and charging parties to receive and file documents electronically, check the status of charges online, and communicate electronically with the EEOC.  These services are intended to streamline the charge process and reduce the number of paper submissions and phone inquiries, easing administrative burdens on the EEOC.  These changes may make it easier not only for the agency to handle more charges and resolve them more quickly, but for complainants to file them.

New ADA Regulations on Employer-Sponsored Wellness Plans – The EEOC issued regulations and interpretive guidance advising that employers may provide limited financial and other incentives in exchange for an employee answering disability-related questions or undergoing medical exams as part of a wellness program.

Employers should review the EEOC’s 2016 charge and enforcement data in order to remain vigilant when responding to complaints of harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace.  The EEOC’s statistics also reinforces the need for employers to train managers, supervisors, and employees on those policies.

For more information on the EEOC’s year-end summary, the EEOC’s strategy for future enforcement of federal employment discrimination statutes, or ways to ensure that your company is in compliance with the EEOC’s mandates, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

Philadelphia Becomes First U.S. City to Prohibit Inquiries into Applicants’ Wage Histories

On January 23, 2017, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney signed into law the “Wage History Ordinance,” which bans all employers doing business in Philadelphia from asking job applicants about their wage histories, subject to a few exceptions. The Ordinance, unanimously passed by the Philadelphia City Council on December 8, 2016, amends Chapter 9-1100 of the Philadelphia Code, the “Fair Practices Ordinance.” The new law, the first for a U.S. city, will take effect on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

The Wage History Ordinance specifically prohibits employers from the following:

  • To inquire about, require disclosure of, or condition employment or consideration for an interview on the disclosure of a potential employee’s wage history, unless done pursuant to a “federal, state or local law that specifically authorizes the disclosure or verification of wage history for employment purposes;”
  • Determine a potential employee’s wages based upon his/her wage history provided by his/her current or former employer, unless the potential employee “knowingly and willingly” disclosed such information to the prospective employer; and/or
  • Take any adverse action against a potential employee who does not comply with a wage history inquiry (anti-retaliation provision).

For purposes of this Section 9-1131, “to inquire” shall mean to “ask a job applicant in writing or otherwise,” and “wages” shall mean “all earnings of an employee, regardless of whether determined on time, task, piece, commission or other method of calculation and including fringe benefits, wage supplements, or other compensation whether payable by the employer from employer funds or from amounts withheld from the employee’s pay by the employer.”

Notably, the exception allowing wage history inquiries where a law “specifically authorizes” such applies not only when the inquiry is required by law, but when it is merely permitted by law.

The new law also requires a prospective employee who alleges a violation of the Ordinance to file a complaint with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory act before he/she may file a civil action in court. Violations of the Ordinance can result in an award of injunctive or other equitable relief, compensatory damages, punitive damages (not to exceed $2,000 per violation), reasonable attorneys’ fees and hearing costs.

Advocates of the legislation, like Philadelphia Councilman Bill Greenlee, have suggested that the Ordinance is aimed at reducing the gender wage gap.  According to the “Findings” section of the Ordinance, women in Pennsylvania are paid 79 cents for every dollar that a man earns.  Amongst minorities, it claims that African-American women are paid 68 cents, Latinas are paid 56 cents, and Asian women are paid 81 cents for every dollar paid to men.  The belief is that, since women have historically been paid less than men, an employer’s knowledge of applicants’ wage histories can perpetuate a cycle of lower salaries.  Advocates profess that the Ordinance forces prospective employers to, instead, set salaries based on an applicant’s experience and the value of the position to the company.

Opponents of the Ordinance, like Rob Wonderling, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, denounce it as an unnecessary “hassle” driving businesses away from Philadelphia.  Corporations like Comcast have also threatened costly lawsuits contesting the legality of the Ordinance.

It is recommended that employers review their hiring practices and applications for employment in advance of the Wage History Ordinance’s effective date of May 23, 2017.  Moreover, anyone involved in the hiring and interview process must be trained to ensure compliance with the new law prohibiting inquiries into an applicant’s salary history.

For more information on the Wage History Ordinance, how it may affect your business, or ways to ensure that your company’s hiring documents and policies comply with the Ordinance, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.