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.

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

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.

N.Y. Mets Deny Pregnancy and Marital Status Discrimination

N.Y. Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon has denied discriminating against and eventually firing a former female senior executive based on her pregnancy and marital status, specifically, for having a baby out of wedlock. In a lawsuit filed in Federal Court in Brooklyn, New York, Wilpon is quoted as saying during a discussion of e-cigarette ads, “I am as morally opposed to putting an e-cigarette sign in my ballpark as I am to Leigh [Castergine] having this baby without being married.” Wilpon is also alleged to have made fun of Castergine by pretending to look for an engagement ring on her finger at meetings, and trashed her to colleagues by saying that “people would respect her more if she was married.” The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for discrimination on the basis of sex, pregnancy and marital status. A Major League Baseball source said the league was aware of the suit and considered it a team matter.

The suit alleged Wilpon told Castergine, who earned a six figure salary, to tell her boyfriend “that when she gets a ring she will make more money and get a bigger bonus.” Castergine gave birth in March 2014 and returned to work in June 2014, but was allegedly urged by other executives to quit.

In August 2014, she claimed that the Mets raised issues about her job performance but offered a severance package if she would agree to not sue or say negative things about the team and Wilpon. Castergine also claims that she was fired August 26, 2014, three minutes after her lawyer sent an email to the team claiming that she was subjected to work-related discrimination. In court papers, however, the Mets asserted that she was fired before they received the email and that it “was based on legitimate business reasons” unrelated to Castergine’s “gender, marital status, pregnancy, or leave.” They pointed to “business issues and conflicts” between Castergine and her supervisor and other executives which began prior to learning that she was pregnant. They also asserted that Wilpon was a longstanding supporter of her.

It remains to be seen if the case goes to trial whether a jury will believe Castergine’s discrimination claims or the Mets’ and Wilpon’s defense that there were independent business reasons unrelated to the plaintiff’s gender, pregnancy and marital status, or leave, all of which comprise categories of discrimination protected by federal and state law.

For workplace issues concerning pregnancy, marital status, leaves, work performance, and gender discrimination or harassment contact the Gilbert Law Group at 631.630.0100.

Offensive, Discriminatory Costumes At Work: From the Racist to the Racy

Halloween is a good time for children and adults alike. But what the holiday represents to children can be far different than what adults look forward to come the end of October. Typically, adults perceive Halloween as an opportunity to get creative with their costumes while taking advantage of the fact that it is easier to get away with wearing an outfit which may not be considered appropriate at any other time of year. In one’s free time and in the company of their friends and family, surely this mindset should not be a problem, most of the time. Frequently however, employees attending Halloween parties at the office or at a work function take it too far by wearing costumes which could easily offend a co-worker. In doing so, one can open themselves or their employers up to liability for harassment and discrimination and and can be disciplined or terminated.

Costumes which should not be worn to work include those that are overly violent, gruesome, controversial, insensitive or grotesque. Some examples include bloody zombies, terrorists, police brutality victims, ebola patients, etc.

Other categories of costumes which will not be tolerated in the office or at a work event range from the racist to the racy. Obviously, if you dress as a nazi or kkk clan member, and the employer allows it, that can be considered blatant and willful discrimination based on race, color, national origin, etc. Likewise, inappropriate, sexually lewd or explicit costumes will lead to allegations of sexual harassment.

Another issue to consider is those employees who may be religious. If employees dress as the anti-christ, or a character from the Book of Mormon, it may lead to some claiming discrimination based on religion.

From an employer’s point of view, one need not be the costume police. An employer does not have to give a list of costumes which will not be tolerated. If you are going to have an event, tell employees that they are to use proper judgment and common sense; that any costumes deemed to be offensive or inappropriate, will lead to a supervisor inevitably telling the employee to change. It is always helpful to encourage employees to ask questions in advance. If there is an HR Department, it may be a good idea for them to speak to an HR rep before they show up in a hazmat suit, as not everyone will find that to be funny or appropriate. It is also important that employers have a policy as it relates to social media. Posting photos of Halloween costumes at work can lead to a negative perception of the company among other unintended legal consequences.

For questions or concerns relating to discrimination, sexual harassment, other workplace, or labor and employment issues, call Gilbert Law Group: (631)630-0100.

Can An Employee be Fired for Marijuana Use?

With marijuana use becoming legal in an increasing number of states, the courts will become the battleground for deciding whether an employee may be fired for marijuana use. In fact, Colorado’s highest court will decide that very issue in a state where both medicinal and recreational marijuana use have been legalized. The issue: whether a workers’ off-duty, off work-site use of medical marijuana is protected by law. The facts: Brandon Coats is a quadraplegic medical marijuana patient who was terminated from Dish Network after failing a drug test in 2010. Coats never got high at work, but pot’s intoxicating chemical, THC, can stay in the system for weeks. The employer claims that it has a zero-tolerance drug-free workplace policy, and it is therefore irrelevant if Coats was impaired at work.

Coats, 35, was paralyzed in a car accident as a teenager. In 2009, he found that pot helped dissipate violent muscle spasms. Coats was a telephone operator for Dish for three years before he failed a random drug test. He told his supervisors in advance that he would probably fail the test. The lower courts upheld the firing, holding that pot use cannot be considered lawful so long as it violates federal law.

Aside from the narrow issue of state law, there are several important issues in this case. Colorado, like New York and several other states, has a Legal Activities Law which prevents employers from discriminating against employees who engage in off-duty, off work-site activities which are legal. New York also recently made legal the medicinal use of marijuana under certain conditions. Also, under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as New York’s Human Rights Law, Dish’s termination of Coats may constitute unlawful disability discrimination based on his disability.  There is also the issue of reasonable accommodation of Coats’ disability.

It would appear that where workers are employed in nonhazardous jobs, unless there is some negative impact in the workplace, an employee’s marijuana use may not serve as a basis for discharge. Negative impacts may include smoking or ingesting at work, impairment or being ‘hung over’ at work, poor performance linked to the use, or time and attendance issues.

Also, if the employer receives federal funding, condoning known pot use may jeopardize a federal subsidized project, contract, continued receipt of federal funds, or status as a federal agency employer inasmuch as federal law still prohibits pot use.

This case clearly has nationwide implications as it will impact how companies and other employers treat employees who use the drug both medically and recreationally. It will therefore be interesting to see how Colorado’s Supreme Court rules. Stay tuned.