Friday, October 28, 2016

E-MAIL SUBSCRIPTION


In response to reader requests, if you would like to receive the latest articles from "The Employee With The Dragon Tattoo" by e-mail, please send your name, your company, and your e-mail to me at fijmanm@phelps.com.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

EMPLOYMENT LAW "SOUP OF THE DAY"


 
Welcome to another serving of "Employment Law Soup of the Day", where we look at the sometimes less than appetizing developments facing employers and HR professionals.  Topping the menu today is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's ("OSHA") new position regarding mandatory drug/alcohol testing of employees  following involvement in a work-place accident.

It’s a very common practice among many employers to require such mandatory testing following an accident or injury, and it is usually spelled out in their drug/alcohol testing policies.  Employers also frequently require such mandatory testing as part of their workers’ compensation coverage, because in most states, being intoxicated or impaired at the time of a workplace accident can bar an employee’s entitlement to benefits.  The fact that such a neutral policy applies to anyone who is involved in an accident also removes the risk of claims of discriminatory testing.  It is also common sense that employers would want to know if an employee’s drug or alcohol use caused or contributed to a workplace accident.
However, under new anti-retaliation provisions in its new injury and illness tracking rule, OSHA has taken the position that such mandatory or “blanket” post-accident testing can discourage employees from reporting accidents and can be considered an illegal act of retaliation unless the employer had an “objectively reasonable basis for testing” under the individualized circumstances of the accident. As stated in guidelines issued on October 19, 2016:

When OSHA evaluates the reasonableness of drug testing a particular employee who has reported a work-related injury or illness, it will consider factors including whether the employer had a reasonable basis for concluding that drug use could have contributed to the injury or illness (and therefore the result of the drug test could provide insight into why the injury or illness occurred), whether other employees involved in the incident that caused the injury or illness were also tested or whether the employer only tested the employee who reported the injury or illness, and whether the employer has a heightened interest in determining if drug use could have contributed to the injury or illness due the hazardousness of the work being performed when the injury or illness occurred. OSHA will only consider whether the drug test is capable of measuring impairment at the time the injury or illness occurred where such a test is available. Therefore, at this time, OSHA will consider this factor for tests that measure alcohol use, but not for tests that measure the use of any other drugs. The general principle here is that drug testing may not be used by the employer as a form of discipline against employees who report an injury or illness, but may be used as a tool to evaluate the root causes of workplace injuries and illness in appropriate circumstances.

 Enforcement of the anti-retaliation provisions was to have gone into effect in August 10, 2016, but OSHA has now delayed enforcement until December 1, 2016 to allow a federal court in Texas to rule on a legal challenge to the anti-retaliation restrictions involving post-accident testing. The suit seeks to block enforcement while the lawsuit is pending.  The Employee with the Dragon Tattoo will be following the case and will keep you updated.

Next on the menu is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) five-year plan or more specifically, its Strategic Enforcement Plan 2017 – 2021 (“SEP 2017-2021”), which it unveiled earlier this month.  In its earlier Strategic Enforcement Plan 2013 -2016, the EEOC outlined its investigation, enforcement and litigation strategies and states the following nationwide priorities: (1) eliminating barriers in recruitment and hiring, (2) protecting immigrant, migrant and other vulnerable workers, (3) addressing emerging and developing issues, (4) enforcing equal pay laws, (5) preserving access to the legal system, and (6) preventing harassment through systemic enforcement and targeted outreach.

In addition to its earlier stated priorities, the EEOC says its SEP 2017-2012 will focus on alleged backlash discrimination against those who are Muslim or Sikh, or persons of Arab, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, as well as persons perceived to be members of these groups, referencing terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad which the EEOC believes have increased the likelihood of discrimination against these communities.  The EEOC also will target what it perceives as a lack of diversity in the technology industry, as well as “issues related to complex employment relationships in the 21st century workplace”, such as temporary workers, , independent contractor issues, and the on-demand or “gig” economy.

Lastly, a follow-up on an interesting religious discrimination case I first reported on back in 2014, involving a belief system called “Onionhead”.  The EEOC sued a New York-based health network on behalf of ten employees, for allegedly coercing the employees to participate in religious practices and terminating those employees who objected or did not participate fully.  According to the EEOC, the Onionhead religion “included group prayers, candle burning, and discussions of spiritual texts. The religious practices are part of a belief system that the defendants' family member created, called Onionhead. Employees were told to wear Onionhead buttons, put Onionhead cards near their work stations and keep only dim lighting in the workplace.  The company in turn argued that Onionhead was not a religion, but was simply a cartoon character used to develop workplace problem solving and conflict resolution skills, and to improve communication and foster teamwork. 

As I noted back in my original article, if a client approached me about implementing such a program in the workplace, I would consider it “just asking for trouble” and would strongly advise against it.  Under Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination, the definition of a religion is construed very broadly, and as described, the Onionhead program appeared to carry many of the trappings of a religious belief, including images of the cartoon character “Onionhead” surrounded by cartoon angels.

Well, on September 30, 2016, a New York federal district court Judge granted the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment as to the specific issue of whether the Onionhead beliefs constituted a religion.  In a 102 page opinion, the district court ruled that for purposes of Title VII, Onionhead was a religion, allowing the case to proceed to trial.  Reportedly, the employer is seeking to have the district court judge reconsider her decision, while the EEOC argues the employer’s proposed motion for reconsideration would be futile and result in undue delay of the trial.

While the Onionhead lawsuit is not your ordinary “failure to accommodate” religious discrimination case, it serves as a warning of the need for proper training of supervisors, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.  Until the next “Employment Law Soup of the Day”, bon app├ętit!


A MESSAGE TO READERS OF "THE EMPLOYEE WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO"  

 If you would like to receive the latest articles from "The Employee With The Dragon Tattoo" by e-mail, please send your name, your company, and your e-mail to me at fijmanm@phelps.com.  Thanks! 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

U.S. SUPREME COURT PASSES ON WEIGHTY ISSUE OF OBESITY AS A DISABILITY UNDER THE ADA





The United States Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a decision by the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which held that that an obese job applicant was not disabled for purposes of a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). By declining to hear the case, the Supreme Court left unresolved an issue splitting federal courts, and leaving employers without guidance as to reasonable accommodations and other requirements under the ADA.
 
Obesity is a subject most employers are likely to face. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDCP"), more than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults qualify as obese (my home state has unfortunately once again tied for the silver medal in this competition). This has a significant impact on employee health-related costs. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death. The CDCP estimates that the annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. is $147 billion, and the medical costs for people who are obese are $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

The story of Morriss v. BNSF Railway Company began in 2011. Melvin Morriss applied for a machinist position with BNSF Railway Company ("BNSF"), and was extended a conditional offer of employment. Because the position was safety sensitive, however, the offer of employment was contingent on a satisfactory medical review.

BNSF doctors conducted two physical examinations of Morriss, who was 5’10" tall. In the first, Morriss weighed 285 pounds and had a body mass index ("BMI") of 40.9. In the second, he weighed 281 pounds and had a BMI of 40.4. BNSF’s policy was not to hire a new applicant for a safety-sensitive position if his BMI equaled or exceeded 40. The company notified Morriss by e-mail that he was "[n]ot currently qualified for the safety sensitive Machinist position due to significant health and safety risks associated with Class 3 obesity ([BMI] of 40 or greater)", and revoked its conditional offer of employment. Other than being overweight, Morriss had no other health problems, was not diabetic, and experienced no difficulties or limitations in his daily activities.

Morriss filed a lawsuit under the ADA, which was dismissed by a Nebraska federal District Court, which held that Morriss had failed to provide any evidence that his obesity was an actual disability under the ADA. The court first noted that to succeed on this claim, Morriss was required to show that his obesity was a physical impairment, defined under the ADA as a physiological disorder or condition that affects a major body system. Morriss appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
 
Prior to the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 ("ADAAA"), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") took the position that "except in rare circumstances, obesity is not considered a disabling impairment." However, after enactment of the ADAAA, the EEOC broadened the definitions of what constituted a disability, and concluded that weight outside the normal range, that was the result of a physiological disorder, constituted a disability.
 
However, despite the ADAAA’s more expansive definitions, on appeal, the Eighth Circuit’s opinion rejected Morriss’s arguments, and affirmed the District Court’s holding:  


"Morriss contends that his obesity, in and of itself, is a physical impairment because it has been labeled ‘severe,’ ‘morbid,’ or ‘Class III’ obesity. This contention garners no support from the EEOC regulations, which state that weight is merely a physical characteristic—not a physical impairment—unless it is both outside the normal range and the result of an underlying physiological disorder.


As previously noted, Morriss has provided no evidence to prove that his obesity is the result of a physiological disorder, and so he instead cites the EEOC Compliance Manual, which states that, while ‘normal deviations’ in weight ‘that are not the result of a physiological disorder are not impairments[,] . . . [a]t extremes, . . . such deviations may constitute impairments.’ The Compliance Manual also states that ‘severe obesity,’ namely, ‘body weight more than 100% over the norm,’ is an impairment. We first note that this Compliance Manual pronouncement directly contradicts the plain language of the Act, as well as the EEOC’s own regulations and interpretive guidance, which, as previously explained, all define ‘physical impairment’ to require an underlying physiological disorder or condition.


In sum, we conclude that for obesity, even morbid obesity, to be considered a physical impairment, it must result from an underlying physiological disorder or condition. This remains the standard even after enactment of the ADAAA, which did not affect the definition of physical impairment. Because Morriss failed to produce evidence that his obesity was the result of an underlying physiological disorder or condition, the district court properly concluded that Morriss did not have a physical impairment under the ADA."


The Eighth Circuit is not the first U.S. appellate court, post ADAAA, to require that obesity or morbid obesity must be caused by a physiological condition to be considered a disability. See EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 463 F.3d 436 (6th Cir. 2006).

However, federal courts have ruled otherwise, and held that severe obesity, in of itself, is enough to constitute a disability under the ADA, as amended by the ADAAA.   The case of   EEOC v. Res. For Human Dev., Inc., 827 F.Supp. 2d 688 (E.D. La. 2011) involved a woman named Lisa Harrison, who worked as a prevention / intervention specialist at a non-profit Louisiana addiction treatment facility. In its suit, the EEOC charged the facility violated the ADA when it fired Harrison because of her severe obesity, even though she was able to perform the essential functions of her job.  Before the EEOC filed suit, Harrison died.  In denying the employer’s summary judgment motion to dismiss the case, and sending it to trial, the District Court’s opinion held that:


"A careful reading of the EEOC guidelines and the ADA reveals that the requirement for a physiological cause is only required when a charging party's weight is within the normal range. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(h). However, if a charging party's weight is outside the normal range that is, if the charging party is severely obese there is no explicit requirement that obesity be based on a physiological impairment. At all relevant points, Harrison was severely obese; when she was hired, she weighed in excess of 400 pounds, and when she was terminated, she weighed in excess of 500 pounds."

However the case never went to trial. Following the District Court’s ruling against the employer, the addiction treatment facility settled with the EEOC for $125,000.

So after the Supreme Court’s decision to not review the Eighth Circuit ruling in Morriss, where does this leave employers? First of all, employers should not consider the Morriss ruling to mean that obesity can never be a disability under the ADA. As in all such cases, a determination of whether an employee has a covered disability requires an individualized assessment of the particular facts and circumstances. However, the ruling by the District Court in Louisiana also should be troubling to employers, because under that interpretation, more than a third of the adults in this country could conceivably be considered disabled, based on the CDCP’s statistics. Expect to see the Supreme Court forced to weigh-in on this issue in the future. 


Thursday, October 6, 2016

THE EEOC CATCHES THE FLU BUG

 
Back in June, when flu season was still just a sneeze on the horizon, I reported in “Religious Discrimination or Infectious Insubordination?” on how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) was suing a Massachusetts hospital for religious discrimination over its policy of mandatory flu shots.
 
While not as infectious as the influenza virus itself, the EEOC’s litigation over this issue also appears to be spreading across the country.  In  EEOC v. Saint Vincent Health Center, the EEOC has filed suit against a Pennsylvania hospital, alleging the facility violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) by failing to accommodate the religious beliefs of six employees and terminating their employment.
According to the EEOC's lawsuit, in October 2013, Saint Vincent Health Center implemented a mandatory seasonal flu vaccination requirement for its employees unless they were granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Under the policy, employees who received an exemption were required to wear a face mask while having patient contact during flu season instead of receiving the vaccination.
In its lawsuit, EEOC alleges that the six employees requested religious exemptions from the flu vaccination requirement based on religious beliefs, and that the facility denied their requests. When the employees continued to refuse to get a flu shot, they were fired.  The lawsuit makes a point of noting that during the same period, the hospital granted 14 vaccination exemption requests based on non-religious medical reasons. 
In addition to this newest case in Pennsylvania, and the one in Massachusetts, the EEOC also has filed a similar lawsuit against a hospital in North Carolina for failing to accommodate employees’ religious objections to mandatory flu shots.
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, and imposes on employers a proactive duty to accommodate sincerely held religious practices that may conflict with workplace practices, as long as the religious practice does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.  For purposes of religious accommodation under Title VII, undue hardship is defined by courts as a “more than de minimis” cost or burden on the operation of the employer's business. For example, if a religious accommodation would impose more than ordinary administrative costs, it would pose an undue hardship. This is a much lower standard than the Americans with Disabilities Act undue hardship defense to disability accommodation.
Whether the EEOC or the healthcare facilities will prevail in these lawsuits will likely hinge on whether it is an undue hardship to offer an accommodation to a policy aimed at protecting the health and safety of patients.  In the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania cases, an accommodation of wearing a facemask to prevent contagion was refused by employees.  In the North Carolina case, the failure to accommodate claim is based on the employee requesting an exemption after the deadline for getting a flu shot already had passed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu is highly contagious and people with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.  While the effects of the flu on most people are not life-threatening, the CDCP notes that severe cases of the flu can result in death for some people, such as the elderly, young children, and persons with certain health conditions, including weakened immune systems.
Back in August of this year, a federal court in Pennsylvania dismissed a similar lawsuit brought by a hospital employee in Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center.  In dismissing the plaintiff’s Title VII religious discrimination, the court’s opinion focused on the fact that the employee’s secular objections to receiving a flu shot simply were not entitled to the religious protections of Title VII:
In sum, Fallon clearly fails to state a claim for religious discrimination under Title VII. He does not belong to a religious congregation, nor does he claim that his reasons for refusing to be vaccinated are based on “religious beliefs,” sincerely held or otherwise. To the contrary, Fallon’s stated opposition to vaccinations is entirely personal, political, sociological and economic—the very definition of secular philosophy as opposed to religious orientation. To adopt Fallon’s argument that he need only show a strongly held moral or ethical belief in lieu of a sincere religious belief would contravene Third Circuit and Supreme Court precedent and would potentially entitle anyone with “strongly held” beliefs on any topic to protection under Title VII’s religious discrimination provision.
However, it remains to be seen whether the court’s ruling in Fallon will be of much help to the Pennsylvania hospital in the EEOC’s latest lawsuit.  Title VII and courts generally construe religion very broadly, and in religious discrimination cases, courts are often reluctant to “play God” by deciding what is or is not a sincerely held religious belief or practice. 

Sunday, October 2, 2016

EEOC PAYS SETTLEMENT FOR VIOLATING OVERTIME RULES AND THE NLRB PAYS THE PRICE FOR “ADMINISTRATIVE HUBRIS”


Welcome back to another episode of “Federal Employment Agencies Behaving Badly” and in this week’s episode, we’ll start off with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency tasked with enforcing the nation’s anti-discrimination laws.  While the EEOC does not enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the laws regarding overtime pay, it is required to comply with the FLSA as it relates to the agency’s own employees. As a reminder of this fact, the EEOC has now agreed to pay a $1.53 Million settlement for failing to properly pay overtime to its employees.
The case began back in 2006, and in 2009, an arbitration ruling found the EEOC had violated the FLSA by requiring investigators, mediators and paralegals to work during lunch hours, on weekends, or after hours, and then forcing them to accept compensatory time instead of the overtime pay they were entitled to for their overtime errors.  EEOC employees described what they were subjected to as “forced volunteering.”  The ruling held:
There is an entitlement to overtime, whereas compensatory time operates as an alternative, should the employees request it . . .  Put another way, it is incorrect to view the FLSA as providing non-exempt employees with the option of selecting either overtime or compensatory time. The right is to overtime; compensatory time is the option.”

The arbitration ruling seven years ago urged the EEOC and the union representing the federal employees to reach a settlement, however, an agreement was not reached until September 22, 2016. 
Despite the settlement, the union was critical of the EEOC’s role in the long delay toward resolving the dispute.  According to National Council of EEOC Locals, No. 216 President Gabrielle Martin “It has been very frustrating to employees that this case has gone on for a decade during which employees retired or unfortunately passed away . . . It is a sad irony that the agency charged with preventing discrimination against workers violated the rights of its employees.”
Our next segment deals with the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), which is the federal agency charged with enforcing U.S. labor law and investigating and remedying unfair labor practices.  A federal appeals court judge has now ordered the agency to pay a company nearly $18,000.00 in legal fees for engaging in “bad faith litigation” and engaging in “administrative hubris”
In Heartland Plymouth Court MI, LLC v. NLRB, a company sought legal fees after it had successfully appealed an NLRB ruling that incorrectly found the company had violated a collective bargaining agreement by reducing employee hours.  In the opinion, Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the NLRB had taken positions unsupported by the law, which placed the employer in the untenable position of having to incur the costs of an unjustified settlement demand, or the legal costs of appealing the NLRB’s improper ruling:
  Facts may be stubborn things, but the Board’s longstanding “nonacquiescence” towards the law of any circuit diverging from the Board’s preferred national labor policy takes obduracy to a new level. As this case shows, what the Board proffers as a sophisticated tool towards national uniformity can just as easily be an instrument of oppression, allowing the government to tell its citizens: “We don’t care what the law says, if you want to beat us, you will have to fight us.”  It is clear enough that the Board’s conduct was intended to send a chilling message to Heartland, as well as others caught in the Board’s crosshairs.
 
Let the word go forth: for however much the judiciary has emboldened the administrative state, we “say what the law is.” In other words, administrative hubris does not get the last word under our Constitution. And citizens can count on it.
 

A MESSAGE TO READERS OF "THE EMPLOYEE WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO"  

 A reader of this blog recently asked if she could be included on an e-mail list for new posts.  I currently do not have an e-mail service but it seems like an excellent idea and I will be setting it up in the very near future.  If you would like to be included, please send your name, your company, and your e-mail to me at fijmanm@phelps.com.  Thanks!