Second Circuit Lowers Bar for FMLA Retaliation Claims

Back on July 19, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit lowered the causation standard that an employee has to meet in order to bring a retaliation claim against an employer under the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act). The Second Circuit explained that FMLA retaliation claims should be analyzed through a “motivating factor” causation standard as opposed to a “but for” causation standard. With the usage of this standard, all an employee has to do in order to bring a viable claim for retaliation against an employer in the Second Circuit is to simply prove that their employer, in correlation with an adverse employment action, viewed an employee’s utilization of the FMLA, in a negative light. The Second Circuit now joins the Third Circuit in using this causation standard.

The Second Circuit expressed its intent to adopt this plaintiff-friendly causation standard going forward in the case, Woods v. START Treatment & Recovery Centers, Inc. This case involved plaintiff Cassandra Woods, who was employed as a substance abuse counselor for START, a nonprofit and one of the largest non-hospital health providers in New York state, from 2007 until she was fired in 2012. Starting in 2011, Woods found herself at the center of much criticism at work as she received multiple warnings regarding her poor performance and was placed on probation eventually because of it. Over the course of this time, Woods was dealing with numerous health problems including severe anemia. Woods alleges that she had requested time off under the FMLA to deal with these detrimental health conditions on multiple occasions over the course of her employment with START but was always denied this requested leave. Woods was eventually hospitalized for a week as a result of her condition in April of 2012; a period that START admitted was protected under the FMLA. Woods was terminated shortly after her return from the hospital due to what START claimed was because of her alleged incompetent work performance.

Going forward, it will be much less burdensome for employees within the Second Circuit, which consists of those in Connecticut, New York and Vermont, to succeed on FMLA retaliation claims. So long as a plaintiff is able to show that the usage of his or her FMLA rights was merely part of the reason their employer took an adverse employment action against them. Additionally, the adoption of this standard by the Second Circuit will also likely result in an uptick in the amount of FMLA retaliation cases that get past summary judgment and proceed to trial. Employers within the Second Circuit will now have to be more careful when terminating employees because although they may have legitimate business reasons for terminating an employee, they still may find themselves in legal trouble if it can be shown that they viewed an employee’s usage of FMLA provided leave as a motivating factor in making the decision to terminate them.

Should you have questions regarding FMLA and/or FMLA retaliation, call Gilbert Law Group today at (631) 630-0100.

Contributed by: Richard (RJ) Cherpak

New Legislation to Promote Equal Pay and Suppress Discrimination

Contributed by Richard Cherpak

         The issue over whether a potential employer’s interview questions regarding an applicant’s previous salary should be banned has sparked an intriguing debate that will impact the legal and business landscape. These laws will not just impact pay equity, but will also effect the number of claims for gender discrimination, age discrimination, and discrimination based on race or national origin.

            Massachusetts, Philadelphia and New York City have all recently passed laws prohibiting employers from asking questions regarding job applicant’s current or previous salary. The ban is expected to come into effect in Massachusetts in the summer of 2018. The statutes are being implemented to encourage equal pay by making employers configure salary numbers based on job requirements and market salary rates for the position being hired instead of the applicant’s past or current salary. Back in early April, the New York City Council approved New York City public advocate Letitia Jame’s bill that prohibits private and public employers from asking job applicants about their past and current salary during the interview process. The bill, which was signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio back on May 4, also prohibits employers from factoring in an applicant’s previous and current salaries when determining what salary they are going to offer. Legislation of this nature has been met with much controversy in Philadelphia. Earlier this month, the city of Philadelphia announced that it would wait to enforce the legislation until a federal judge decided on a petition to block the legislation from the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

            Significantly for employers, in New York City, there are going to be severe penalties for violating the ban. If the city feels that the employer violated the ban in a malicious and willful manner, she or he may be held liable in fines of up to $250,000.

            Although the penalties for violating the ban are severe, there are a few exceptions to the law. One such exception allows for applicants and potential employees to use their own discretion in deciding whether or not to share their salary history. Accordingly, once employers receive this information from the applicant voluntarily, they may lawfully take it into consideration when offering a salary number.

            The potential benefits of implementing such a ban include that it may create more transparency between employers, employees and prospective employees when negotiating offers and raises, which in turn, may ease any tensions over lack of compensation that an employee may feel. By forcing employers to take more of an objective market-based approach when they are deciding what salary figure they are going to offer to an applicant, it becomes less likely that an applicant will claim unequal pay, or gender or racial discrimination. Using a market based approach allows employers to look at the standard market rate for what an employee of a similar position and skill level at another company makes while still providing the employer with some discretion what actual salary their prospective employee should earn based on their own individual skill set and experience.

            Although there is a strong argument for implementing this law, there is also a compelling argument against it. One argument currently being made by the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, which is representing around 600,000 businesses, is that implementing such a ban would violate free speech rights of employers and make it more difficult for companies to recruit top talent. The lawsuit in Philadelphia says that employers’ use of wage history information is a valuable tool in assessing whether they can or cannot afford to hire a particular candidate. They further contend that it is used to help businesses figure out an appropriate salary for a particular job. Another potential downfall of implementing such a ban is that it could expose businesses to major lawsuits opening the flood gates for a overwhelming stream of litigation. Say for example that a company leaves a question on their application regarding salary information, this could lead an applicant to file suit against the company. Additionally, there may be confusion and debate over the interpretation of a salary based question on an application because a question that the employer has regarding one’s salary expectations may be misconstrued by a potential employee or applicant to be a question regarding one’s salary history.

            According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, implementation of legislation of this nature is likely to expand across the country and continue as this year alone, 21 other states and Washington D.C. have proposed laws that would forbid questions regarding salary history. These states include: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington.

EEOC: Employers, be Proactive vs. Workplace Harassment

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that workplace harassment was an actionable form of discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several examples of common harassment and discrimination that take place in the workplace are sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, racial discrimination, and age discrimination (under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or ADEA). Recently, the EEOC issued a report encouraging employers to be more proactive in preventing workplace harassment.

In January 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission created a Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (“Select Task Force”). This Select Task Force spent  18 months examining the myriad and complex issues associated with harassment in the workplace. In June 2016, the Select Task Force  published its findings. The report calls for employers to “reboot” workplace harassment prevention methods. The report also outlines statistics, risks and administrative recommendations.

The study encourages employers to assess their workplaces for the risks associated with harassment, survey employees. Further, the report urges employers to hold accountable managers and supervisors for preventing and reacting to grievances while also actively promoting diversity.

Interestingly, the report also states that employers should be wary of “zero tolerance” anti-harassment policies that are used as a one-size fits all model. Rather, any discipline that might result from such policy violations should be proportionate to the offense.

Additionally, the report finds that employers should also consider including a social media policy that ties into their anti-harassment policies.  The downside to this however is that the National Labor Relations Board has released guidelines on drafting and updating social media policies. Some cases have held that such a policy may violate an employee’s right to engage in protected concerted activity.

In conclusion, the findings state that the name of the game is truly harassment prevention. This may prove challenging as labor and employment laws are not logical and often do not follow common sense. To this end, seeking experienced legal counsel is critical.

Should you have questions, or wish to seek counsel, call Gilbert Law Group today at (631)630-0100.

Teacher Loses Employment Discrimination Case Against School District

What does employment discrimination mean and when is an individual entitled to bring a workplace discrimination claim? How does employment discrimination law apply to Education Law?

 Generally, under Federal and New York State Laws employment discrimination occurs when a person or a group of persons is treated unequally based on race, gender, age, disability, religion, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, veteran status, and political affiliation or beliefs, which has a negative affect on that individual. Therefore, job discrimination is prohibited and several Federal Acts have been enacted to support this objective, such as:

  1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII),
  2. Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA),
  3. Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA),
  4. Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA),
  5. Civil Rights Act of 1991,
  6. Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and
  7. Title II of the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act of 2008 (GINA);

 In a recently issued verdict that was tried before the U. S. Eastern District of New York Court in Central Islip, a middle school employee lost a racial discrimination case against Malverne public school officials. A middle school mathematics teacher who was denied a promotion or reassignment initiated the suit. The teacher alleged the District discriminated against him due to his race. At the conclusion of the trial, an eight-member jury examined all the evidence and determined that the teacher had failed to establish the school district and/or its administrators had violated federal laws prohibiting discrimination. In reaching this conclusion, there are several requisite factors which must be considered. In light of these requirements, the federal jury unanimously came to the conclusion that the school’s decision in refusing to promote or reassign the teacher an additional class was not racially motivated and as a result there was no basis to grant the teacher damages.

 Where, however, a court finds that a person has been unlawfully discriminated at their workplace, the substantial remedies are available including, but not limited to, hiring, promotion, backpay, reinstatement, front pay, emotional distress damages, and reasonable accommodation.

 If you have questions or concerns regarding employment discrimination, or have any questions relating to workplace law, call Gilbert Law Group at 631.630.0100.

Contributed by Sakine Oezcan, Esq.

Does Perception Equal Reality for Title VII Employment Discrimination?

One major difference between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is that the ADA explicitly protects employees who are discriminated against because of an employer’s perception that they are disabled, although in reality they may not be. Title VII employment discrimination, on the other hand, does not recognize the concept of an employer discriminating against an employee based on that employer’s perception that an employee is a member of a protected class. Accordingly, a Title VII plaintiff historically has a higher burden of proof in establishing their prima facie case. Traditionally, although the same act of “discrimination” would not be the basis for an employment discrimination cause of action where the worker is not a member of a protected class, recent case law has demonstrated a trend towards expanding protections under Title VII to include an employer’s perception that an employee is a member of a protected class.

Two recent cases in particular are illustrative of this trend in employment discrimination. In Kallabat v. Michigan Bell Telephone Co., a federal judge ordered that a Michigan man’s case on perceived religious discrimination go forward. Mr. Basil Kallabat, a dark-skinned man of Iraqi descent, and a self-proclaimed non-Muslim, suffered an adverse employment action while working as a customer service representative. Even though a Title VII claim based on his color, gender, or national origin would be unimpeachable, Mr. Kallabat’s claim centered on an element of perceived religion. The plaintiff claimed that when he wore a hat backwards and a co-worker said it looked like a “topi” (a skullcap worn by Muslim men for religious reasons) and other workers starting laughing at Plaintiff as a result. Further, on another occasion, there was graffiti etched into the door of a bathroom stall of one of Defendant’s offices depicting two buildings similar to the Twin Towers with a plane hitting one of them and a caption that stated that the plaintiff is learning how to fly. After learning of the graffiti, the Area Manager said that Plaintiff was oversensitive, emotional, and unable to take the joke during a crew meeting. The Court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that a reasonable jury could find that the incidents are evidence of discrimination based on the perception that Plaintiff was a Muslim. Similarly, in Arsham v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, an Iranian engineer’s perceived Title VII claim survived summary judgment on the basis that her supervisor’s mistaken belief that she was Indian, and not Iranian, should not save the employer from Title VII liability.

With this potentially looming expansion of workplace religious employment discrimination protection, it is imperative that both management and employees know their respective rights as they relate to federal, state, and municipal ordinances. The Gilbert Law Group can help you navigate this fast changing legal arena.

 Schedule a consultation by calling (631) 630-0100.

 Contributed by Michael B. Engle

WHAT COULD BROWN HAVE DONE FOR RELIGION? EEOC BRINGS CLASS-ACTION RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION LAWSUIT AGAINST UPS, Contributed by Michael B. Engle

In a continuation of its evident agenda to expand protections for religious discrimination, the EEOC has set its sights on the UPS. United Parcel Services (UPS) prides itself in being masters of logistics. UPS drivers are encouraged to take three right turns instead of one left turn in order to not have to idle in traffic, are taught how to buckle their seat belts while starting their trucks in order to save time, and are held accountable for almost every action they take while on the job. In its pursuit of uniformity, UPS also has a dress code and grooming policy for its employees, but according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), UPS is unlawfully stalling on accommodating some of its drivers’ sincerely held religious beliefs. Discrimination based on religion has become a developing area of workplace law.

Last June, the EEOC won a Supreme Court case against Abercrombie & Fitch, on behalf of a young Ms. Samantha Elauf, of Tulsa, OK. In Elauf’s case, she interviewed for a position while wearing a hijab (a head covering, as worn by some Muslim females), and was not hired. Abercrombie claimed that it could not accommodate the hijab without compromising their “look book” to which its employees must adhere, but the EEOC prevailed, on the theory that this practice unduly discriminated against Muslims, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 The EEOC’s new Title VII claim against UPS is a class action claim, on behalf of Muslim, Rastafarian, and other employees who have been injured by UPS’s strict grooming policy. As UPS’s policy currently stands, male supervisors, as well as male truck drivers who interact face-to-face with customers, are prohibited from wearing beards and from growing their hair below collar length.

 The EEOC cites anecdotes from two victims. In 2005, a UPS hiring official in Rochester, NY alleged told Bilal Abdullah, a Muslim, that “God would understand” if he shaved his beard to get a driver helper job, and could instead seek a package handler job that required no customer contact. UPS hired him for neither position. Meanwhile, in Fort Lauderdale, FL, a Rastafarian part-time load supervisor claims that his manager “didn’t want any employees looking like women,” in objection to his dreadlocks.

 While UPS currently claims that it “is confident in the legality of its employment practices,” it is imperative that employers act carefully in order to avoid litigation. If you feel that your employer’s rules discriminate against your religion, or if you are the employer and want guidance in your policies, contact the Gilbert Law Group today, (631)630-0100.

Spanish Speaking Employees Bring Lawsuit Over English-only Rule At Work

Can an employer require its employees to speak only English at work? That question will be answered in a lawsuit brought against Delta Airlines by a group of Spanish speaking airplane cabin cleaners. The employees claim that a shift manager barred workers from speaking Spanish after a company, Gate Gourmet, took over the contract to clean Delta’s planes at Los Angeles International Airport. Most of the 14 employees speak little to no English but had been performing their jobs for years.

According to the national counsel for the Mexican American Legal and Educational Fund which is representing the plaintiffs, “They’re essentially muted. They’ve got to walk around with their mouth shut. So it is humiliating and denigrating, and it makes it harder for them to do their job.” Gate Gourmet said that the comppany does not have an English-only rule. Under California law, employers can require employees to speak English only if there is a legitimate business reason.

The court complaint alleges that employees must rapidly clean airplane cabins and restock supplies before passengers board the planes. They communicate over radio regarding when and where they need to go. The employer did not warn employees what penalty would be imposed if they violated the language rule. The company may have difficulty in defending the case as it appears that the shift policy is only applied to workers on the evening shift. Morning and night crews continue to speak in Spanish, according to the complaint.

The employees assert that they complained to the human resources department but received no answer. The action seeks to require Gate Gourmet to withdraw the rule and pay damages and attorneys’ fees.

If you have any issues with a claim, potential claim, or questions regarding the issues raised by this lawsuit or other workplace policies, please calll the Gilbert Law Group at 631.630.0100.

 

 

Arbitrator Holds Employer MLB Did Not Have Right To Suspend Josh Hamilton For Violating Employer’s Substance Abuse Policy

             In a stunning decision laid down on April 3, 2015, an independent arbitrator ruled that baseball athlete Josh Hamilton, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels, would not be suspended for self-reporting a drug relapse on February 25. Major Leave Baseball as a substantive substance abuse policy in its Collective Bargaining Agreement and the slugger’s contract had specific language not permitting him to drink alcohol or ingest drugs. The decision shocked Hamilton’s employer, perhaps because he had already been in a sports treatment program due to a history of drug and alcohol issues. Instead of being suspended, Hamilton will be eligible to play and will be able to collect $23 million as part of his salary with the Angels. The matter was submitted to an independent arbitrator after a treatment board created by Major League Baseball’s joint drug program could not determine whether Hamilton’s actions were a violation of his treatment program. The arbitrator did not give any reasons for finding in favor of Hamilton.

            Major League Baseball, the party advocating for his suspension, expressed disappointment with the arbitrator’s decision and in a statement said it would “seek to address deficiencies in the manner in which drugs of abuse are addressed under the program in the collective-bargaining process.” The current collective bargaining agreement is in place until after the 2016 baseball season.

            Employers who find themselves in a similar situation to that of the Los Angeles Angels should consult an attorney for counsel as to their collective-bargaining agreements contain controlling language when matters are left to independent arbitrators.

Employers Be On Alert: Employment Retaliation Claims Are At an All-Time High

Employers be on alert: employment retaliation claims are at an all-time high.

The number of discrimination charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the past year reached the lowest level since 2007, based on published statistics from the EEOC. Retaliation charges, on the other hand, are at their highest percentage ever of claims filed ever.

The EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for fiscal years 2013-2016 lists retaliation issues as one of six areas of priority for the agency. The EEOC describes this priority as “targeting policies and practices which discourage or prohibit individuals from exercising their rights under the employment discrimination statutes or that impede EEOC’s enforcement efforts.”

The 2014 statistics, and the priority placed on EEOC retaliation enforcement, are a significant reminder that employers should take the necessary steps to minimize the chance of a retaliation claim even when the underlying discrimination claim is not meritorious. Employers should make sure to consult a knowledgeable employment attorney to ensure their employment policies are up to date. Where there is an active discrimination claim against an employer, there are many acts which if taken, could constitute retaliation. In such circumstances, is important that the that an employer seek counsel before taking action.

Pregnancy Discrimination Takes Center Stage at Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will decide whether UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) when it refused to provide a temporary light duty assignment to Peggy Young when she was pregnant 7 years ago before giving birth to her daughter, Triniti. The assignment would have allowed Young to work but avoid lifting heavy packages, as her physician had ordered. The issue is whether UPS violated the law by its policy of providing temporary light duty only to employees who had on-the-job injuries, were disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or lost their federal driver certification.

It is well-settled that drawing a distinction between pregnant and nonpregnant employees in the workplace is generally unlawful, unless there is a legitimate business reason to justify the distinction. In 1978, Congress passed the PDA in response to the Supreme Court ruling that workplace rules that excluded pregnant workers from disability benefits and insurance coverage were not sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In this case UPS argues that unless Young can show that it intentionally discriminated against her, she has no case. Young contends that UPS “told me basically to go home and come back when I was no longer pregnant.” Young is now 42 and it has taken 7 years to get before the Court.

The Obama administration and 120 Democrats in Congress have submitted a brief supporting Young’s position. Moreover, the EEOC has updated guidance to employers to clarify that they should accommodate workers like Young. Likewise, UPS has since changed its policy so that pregnant employees are eligible for the light duty assignment.

Nonetheless, the Court’s decision is expected to have far-reaching impact in workforces across the nation as 75% of women entering the workforce today will become pregnant at least once while employed, and many will be forced to work throughout their pregnancies, or face possible termination during their pregnancies or upon their return. Stay tuned for the decision.

For workplace issues, such as pregnancy, sex discrimination, light duty or leave policies, contact the Gilbert Law Group at 631.630.0100.