Showing posts with label Mark Fijman's blog. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mark Fijman's blog. Show all posts

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! 



Saturday, September 24, 2016

THE EEOC GETS A DREAD (LOCKS) RULING


Back in October 2013, The Employee With The Dragon Tattoo told you about how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") had filed suit against Catastrophe Management Solutions Inc. (“CMSI”), an Alabama based insurance claims company.  The lawsuit alleged the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against an African-American job applicant on the basis of race because she wore dreadlocks. The case highlighted the employment issues that can arise over workplace grooming policies, and also sparked sharp criticism against the EEOC’s position from the business community, as well as on the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
 
However, in a recent ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has upheld the employer’s workplace ban on dreadlocks and rejected the EEOC’s hard-edged position that a mutable choice, such as hairstyle, equals an immutable trait such as race.
 
The case began back in 2012.  Chastity Jones was offered a position with CMSI as a customer service representative. At the time of her interview, Jones, who is black, had blond hair that was dreaded in neat curls, or “curllocks.” CMSI’s grooming policy required employees to be “dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines . . . [H]airstyles should reflect a business/professional image.  No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable.”  When the manager in charge told Jones that the company did not allow dreadlocks and that she would have to change her hairstyle in order to obtain employment. Jones declined to do so, and the manager immediately rescinded the job offer.
 
In the lawsuit, the EEOC argued that CMSI’s ban on dreadlocks and the imposition of its grooming policy on Jones discriminated against African-Americans based on physical and/or cultural characteristics.  At the time of the filing of the lawsuit, Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for the EEOC's Birmingham District Office, stated, “Generally, there are racial distinctions in the natural texture of black and non-black hair. The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from non-blacks.” 

The lower federal court later dismissed the lawsuit on the basis that unlike race, “a hairstyle, even one closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic.”  The EEOC appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, arguing that dreadlocks are a natural outgrowth of the immutable trait of race and that a policy forbidding dreadlocks could be a form of racial stereotyping.
 
In his recent article discussing the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling against the EEOC, my colleague Day Peake, in Phelps Dunbar’s Mobile, Alabama Office, explained the appellate court’s rationale:
 
The Eleventh Circuit held that Title VII’s prohibition on intentional discrimination does not protect hairstyles culturally associated with race. Rather, it prohibits intentional discrimination based on immutable traits such as race, color or national origin. By this rationale, the court explained, discrimination based on black hair texture, such as a natural Afro, would violate Title VII. A prohibition on an all-braided hairstyle, however, addresses a mutable choice and does not implicate Title VII’s proscription of intentional race discrimination.
This decision offers an important exploration of the definition of “race,” which is not defined in Title VII. EEOC relied on its Compliance Manual definition, which provides that “Title VII prohibits employment discrimination against a person because of cultural characteristics often linked to race or ethnicity, such as a person’s name, cultural dress and grooming practices, or accent or manner of speech.” The court chose not to give this guidance much deference or weight in its analysis because the court found the guidance to be contradictory to a position taken by EEOC in an earlier administrative appeal.
The Eleventh Circuit also rejected and criticized the EEOC’s argument on appeal that CMSI’s grooming policy was illegal under a theory of disparate impact, which does not require proof of discriminatory intent, as opposed to disparate treatment, which would constitute intentional discrimination.
In addition to a victory for CMSI, the Eleventh Circuit also vindicated the Wall Street Journal’s assessment of the EEOC’s lawsuit back in 2013:
Apparently Ms. Franklin-Thomas has never seen dreadlocked whites (like the Counting Crow's Adam Duritz) or Latinas (like Shakira). Catastrophe's policy is in fact racially neutral because it enjoins all employees, regardless of race, "to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image," including "hairstyle." The company determined that dreadlocks don't meet that standard, as is its right . . . The larger travesty of this case and other misbegotten EEOC crusades of late is that they take time and resources away from individuals with legitimate claims of employment discrimination. Banning dreadlocks doesn't qualify.
Notwithstanding the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling, issues of workplace grooming and dress codes are often case and fact specific, and can easily turn into a litigation minefield, particularly over issues of religious accommodation.  This was highlighted recently in the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores (2015). 
Employers should carefully and regularly review such policies, and consult with counsel prior to taking adverse employment actions based on violations of such policies that might implicate a protected class of employees under Title VII.
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! 

 


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

EEOC SUES EMPLOYER OVER POSITIVE DRUG TEST FOR PRESCRIPTION OPIOID PAINKILLER


            In recent years, the abuse of prescription opioid pain medication has become a widely reported national epidemic. The New England Journal of Medicine reports millions of Americans are addicted to prescription pain medications, and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record, with the majority of deaths from opioids, and 78  Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.  Prescription opioid abuse also has been linked to the national increase in heroin addiction.  Commonly prescribed opioid painkillers include Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Oxycodone(OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (Kadian, Avinza) or medications containing Codeine.
            However, a recent lawsuit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against a Sioux Falls, South Dakota Casino reveals the tension between an employer’s concern about prescription drug abuse in the workplace and complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
            According to the facts given in the lawsuit, Kim Mullaney applied for a position with Happy Jack’s Casino.  The EEOC’s lawsuit states that Mullaney had a recognized disability under the ADA involving chronic pain, and had a valid prescription for the prescription drug Hydrocodone.  Mullaney received a job offer from Happy Jack’s, but the offer was withdrawn after a routine pre-employment drug test came back positive for Hydrocodone.  According to the lawsuit, Mullaney told Happy Jack's Casino that the test reflected prescription drugs that she took for her disability, and even though she told them that she would provide additional information if needed, Happy Jack's Casino refused to hire her.  According to the Complaint:

Because [Happy Jack’s] didn’t offer Mullaney a chance to offer proof that the drugs were prescribed by a doctor for a medically-recognized condition, the company violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Blanket drug-testing rules that cover legally-prescribed medications do not comport with the law


            Typically, most company drug testing policies include provisions that allow employers to either disclose their legally prescribed prescription in accordance with the ADA, or to otherwise explain or contest a positive test result.  However, this lawsuit should service as a notice for employers to review their current drug testing policies.  This workplace issue is further complicated by the ongoing decriminalization of marijuana in the United States.   Approximately half the states already have legalized marijuana, for either medical or recreational use, and another eight states will be voting on the issue in November.
 

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

 A reader of this blog 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! 

 


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

EEOC Targets Mandatory Arbitration Agreements in Lawsuit Against Restaurant Franchisee

 
 
          A Florida company that owns franchise restaurants, such as Applebee’s and Panera Bread, has been sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) for making its employees sign mandatory arbitration agreements.  The lawsuit, filed September 18, 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, is the latest instance of the EEOC targeting employer practices which the agency  views as limiting employees’ right to file charges of discrimination or bring lawsuits under Title VII and other employment discrimination statutes.
            According to the agency’s allegations in EEOC v. Doherty Enterprises, Inc. (Civil Action No. 9:14-cv-81184-KAM), the company “requires each prospective employee to sign a mandatory arbitration agreement as  a condition of employment.  The agreement  mandates that all employment-related claims -- which would otherwise allow  resort to the EEOC -- shall be submitted to and deter­mined exclusively by  binding arbitration.”  The EEOC alleges the arbitration agreements interfere with employees' rights to file discrimination charges and “violates Section 707 of Title VII of the Civil  Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employer conduct that constitutes a pattern  or practice of resistance to the rights protected by Title VII.
            The lawsuit is not surprising since the EEOC made it clear in its 2013 – 2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan that “[t]he EEOC will target policies and practices that discourage or prohibit individuals from exercising their rights under employment discrimination statutes, or that impede the EEOC's investigative or enforcement efforts.”  However, while these type of “test” cases by the agency result in substantial legal costs for employers, the EEOC does not seem to have been getting much bang for its buck when it actually gets in front of a federal judge.
            As noted in my September 21, 2014 posting, “EEOC Experiences “Separation Anxiety”in Lawsuit Against CVS”, last week the EEOC suffered a big defeat in their controversial lawsuit against CVS Pharmacy, over the drug store chain’s use of separation agreements for departing employees.  In that lawsuit, the EEOC had taken the same approach as it has in this latest case, alleging the drug store chain’s use of very standardized separation agreements demonstrated a pattern and practice of CVS interfering with employees' Title VII in a way that “deters the filing of charges and interferes with employees' ability to communicate voluntarily with the EEOC.” 
            In comments about the agency’s lawsuit against Doherty Enterprises, EEOC Regional Counsel Robert E. Weisberg left little doubt that more lawsuits over arbitration agreements can be expected:
"Employee communication with the  EEOC is integral to the agency's mission of eradicating employment discrimination.  When an employer forces all complaints about  employment discrimination into confidential arbitration, it shields itself from  federal oversight of its employment practices.   This practice violates the law, and the EEOC will take action to deter further use of these types of overly broad arbitration agreements."
           
        As was the case of separation agreements in the CVS lawsuit, mediation agreements are commonly used by employers nationwide, and the EEOC’s litigation focus is troubling to the business community.  For employers who utilize arbitration agreements, it would be advisable to have them reviewed by legal counsel.
 Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

EEOC Tells Employers “If you like your Criminal Background Check…you Can Keep your Criminal Background Check”



 After suffering defeats over its efforts to enforce guidelines on the use of criminal background checks, it appears the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has launched its version of a charm offensive, while simultaneously girding for appellate battle over its latest courtroom loss.

At the recent American Bar Association's Annual Labor and Employment Conference, top EEOC officials argued that the federal agency was not trying to prevent employers from using background checks. The EEOC’s Senior Counsel James Paretti said the EEOC’s new guidelines merely seek a balance between employers’ interests in protecting property and ensuring personal safety, and making sure that minority job seekers are not subjected to disparate impact discrimination under Title VII.

Paretti denied that the EEOC was administratively seeking to create a new protected class of individuals with criminal records. Under the 2012 enforcement guidelines, the stated rationale for the EEOC’s position was that employers’ reliance on criminal records as a factor in hiring decisions disproportionately affects minorities, who statistically have higher rates of arrest and criminal conviction, i.e. disparate impact.

One continuing complaint about the EEOC’s guidelines is that it places significant costs on employers to create and maintain screening systems to evaluate whether an individual with a criminal record should be excluded on the basis of business necessity, using factors such as the severity of the crime, the period of time since conviction and the specific duties and responsibilities of the job sought. The guidelines further require employers to allow for an additional individualized assessment to those excluded by the initial screening, to explain why they should not be disqualified.

In what appears to be a new approach by the EEOC, Paretti strongly suggested that while employers are free to use background checks, they should not do them until after employers already have determined that the applicant meets all other job qualifications. In a less than subtle threat, EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum noted that the agency was looking into whether the EEOC would consider it a record-keeping violation if employers did not retain data on the disparate impact the an employer’s background screening had on minorities.

I have two thoughts on this. First, requiring employers to go through the time and expense of ensuring an applicant’s qualifications, and then leaving a background check until last, could result in wasted efforts and additional costs. For example, an employer could spend significant time and effort confirming that a candidate is ideally qualified to be a daycare administrator, only to find out at the end, per the EEOC’s suggestion, that the job candidate is a convicted sexual offender, and ineligible for such a position.

Second, the EEOC’s intimation that employers who use background checks could be subject to even more stringent record-keeping requirements, belies their claim that they are not trying to eliminate employers from using background checks.

In a related note, you may recall in my September 30, 2013 posting, the EEOC suffered a court defeat in the case of EEOC v. Freeman. In that case, a District Court in Maryland granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer Freeman, dismissing the plaintiff EEOC’s claim that Freeman’s background check policies violated Title VII. In the Court’s opinion, it issued a stinging rebuke to the EEOC for pursuing a disparate impact discrimination claim based on “a theory in search of facts to support it.”

On November 6, 2013, the EEOC appealed the District Court’s dismissal of the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Other than the loss of face over the Court’s rejection of their theory of liability, the EEOC has another strong motivation to appeal the adverse ruling. Following the ruling in its favor, Freeman filed a motion to require the EEOC to cover the company’s $1.2 million dollars in attorneys’ fees.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Workplace Profanity Can Support Religious Discrimination Claim


A ruling by a federal District Court in Oregon should serve as a warning to employers that a co-worker’s use of profanity in the workplace may be enough to support a triable religious discrimination hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). In Griffin v. City of Portland, the Court noted that while not every use of profanity that occurred was enough to prove it was directed at the plaintiff because of her protected class, there was sufficient evidence to put the case in front of a jury.

For an excellent in-depth analysis of the case, I would direct you to an article authored by MaryJo Roberts, of my firm’s New Orleans office. For purposes of this posting the facts are as follows.

The plaintiff in the case, Kellymarie Griffin, described herself as a devout Christian. She alleged that co-workers frequently used profanity in the workplace, including the names of God and Jesus Christ in their curse words. The Plaintiff alleged that because of her deep religious beliefs, she was offended by such profanity and would inform her co-workers that such language was offensive to her. From the facts of the case, it appears that for the most part, such profanity from her co-workers was not directed at her because of her faith or on the basis of religious animus, and the co-workers generally refrained from cursing in her presence after she spoke with them.

More troubling were specific comments from plaintiff’s co-worker Theresa Lareau. According to the lawsuit, Lareau called plaintiff a “wacko” and told plaintiff that she prayed to something “that didn’t exist.” On one occasion, after plaintiff complained about profanity, Lareau allegedly told her "I'm sick of your Christian attitude, your Christian [expletive] all over your desk, and your Christian [expletive] all over the place" and Ms. Lareau accused Plaintiff of using her religion for attention.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming she was subjected to a religiously hostile work environment because of her religion. Her employer sought to have the case dismissed on summary judgment, but the District Court denied the City’s motion, allowing the case to proceed to trial. The Court held that "not every allegation of offensive conduct" by Plaintiff's co-workers will ultimately be pertinent to the question [of] whether Ms. Griffin was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her protected status”, but that she had "shown sufficient evidence of religiously discriminatory conduct to make out a claim for hostile work environment religious discrimination as a matter of law."

The Court’s opinion distinguished between profanity that directly implicated religious ideas and profanity that were simple secular epithets. Of note was the Court’s observation that the absence of a hostile intent was not enough to insulate an employer from liability and “if conduct occurred 'because of' a plaintiff's protected status, even if the actor does not intend hostility or even know that the conduct may be perceived as hostile, that conduct is relevant to whether the plaintiff experienced a hostile work environment." The Court also found there was a jury question as to whether the City had taken sufficient action to remedy the alleged religious discrimination.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijman@phelps.com




“Don’t Mess with Texas” . . . the Lone Star State Sues the EEOC over Employers’ Use of Criminal Background Checks


The State of Texas has filed a lawsuit against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging that the federal agency has overstepped its statutory authority by imposing limits on employers’ use of criminal background checks in making employment decisions.
It has been over a year since the EEOC issued strict enforcement guidelines, seeking to limit employers’ ability to make employment decisions based on an individual’s criminal history. The stated rationale for the EEOC’s position is that employers’ reliance on criminal records as a factor in hiring decisions disproportionately affects minorities, who statistically have higher rates of arrest and criminal conviction, and has a disparate impact in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). While not completely banning the use of background checks, the EEOC guidelines place a burden on employers to prove that such reliance is based on business necessity.

The lawsuit by the State of Texas alleges that the EEOC “purports to limit the prerogative of employers, including Texas, to exclude convicted felons from employment” and that the State of Texas and “its constituent agencies have the right to impose categorical bans on the hiring of criminals, and the EEOC has no authority to say otherwise.”

Since the EEOC released the new enforcement guidelines in 2012, it has brought a series of lawsuits against employers, alleging violations of Title VII. However, federal courts have expressed skepticism over the federal agency’s theory of liability and in recent cases, have ruled against the EEOC and in favor of employers. In one such case, a U.S. District Court chastised the EEOC for pursuing a disparate impact discrimination claim based on “a theory in search of facts to support it.”

In its lawsuit, the State of Texas is asking the U.S. District Court to declare that the EEOC’s use of the guidelines are invalid and to enjoin the EEOC from challenging the State’s policy of not hiring convicted felons for certain state jobs.

At the time the EEOC released the stricter guidelines, many legal commentators noted that Congress had never granted the federal agency such rulemaking authority, and that the guidelines were an illegitimate exercise of authority.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLC, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com




Thursday, October 31, 2013

Employment Non-Discrimination Act Nears Senate Vote and Related "Lagniappe"


In a  posting last month, I noted on the improved prospects for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“ENDA”), which would extend Title VII protection against employment discrimination to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender employees (“LGBT”). The law would make sexual orientation/sexual identity a protected class in the same manner race, religion, gender, national origin, age and disability are protected under existing federal laws, and make it illegal for organizations with 15 or more employees to:

"[F]ail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity."

On Monday, October 28, 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he would bring the legislation to a Senate vote within the coming weeks. The legislation has picked up support from two Republicans in the majority Democrat chamber. Passage in the Senate would be a symbolic first for the legislation, which has been unsuccessfully introduced in one form or another for decades. However, it is unlikely that bill will get much traction in the House of Representatives.

This is an issue where the private sector has quietly taken action without the help or hindrance of lawmakers in Washington. A significant majority of Fortune 500 companies have voluntarily put in place policies prohibiting discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation or sexual identity. Some states also have  passed similar legislation into law.
 
However, specific provisions of ENDA do raise concern among employers, on such issues as employer dress codes. The language of ENDA does not prohibit “reasonable dress or grooming standards” but would require employers to permit:

"[A]ny employee who has undergone gender transition prior to the time of employment, and any employee who has notified the employer that the employee has undergone or is undergoing gender transition after the time of employment, to adhere to the same dress or grooming standards as apply for the gender to which the employee has transitioned or is transitioning."

Employers also have expressed worries about ENDA interpretations that would require employers to allow access to restrooms or dressing/locker rooms to employees who are biologically one gender, but identify with another gender. With the potential for sexual harassment liability or privacy issues, some business owners believe, for example, that ENDA would force them to ignore the legitimate concerns of female employees about having to share a restroom of dressing room with a male employee who self-identifies as a woman.

Regardless of how ENDA fares in Congress, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is already trying to pursue some of the same goals of ENDA, within the existing structure of Title VII. As I’ve previously discussed, late last year, the EEOC released its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for 2013 – 2016. Among the agency’s targeted goals was to provide LGBT coverage under Title VII sex discrimination, even though such protection is not contained within the actual statute. The SEP also addressed the agency’s intent to curtail employer’s use of criminal background checks when making employment decisions.

In a somewhat related story, on September 27, 2013, in an en banc ruling, a ten-judge majority of a bitterly divided sixteen-judge Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the EEOC could establish a same-sex harassment claim with evidence of gender stereotyping in the form of sexually charged taunting directed at a male employee by his male supervisor. EEOC v. Boh Bros. Constr. Co., (5th Cir. Sept. 27, 2013).

In 2007, the employee filed a charge with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment stemming from the conduct of his male supervisor, who oversaw an all-male workforce on an ironworker construction site. The supervisor purportedly was lewd and vulgar to the employee on a daily basis, including instances of exposing his genitals to the employee while urinating, simulating anal intercourse whenever the employee bent over, and using homophobic slurs to refer to the employee. Upon completion of the administrative process, the EEOC brought an enforcement action on the employee’s behalf and, following a three-day jury trial, obtained a $300,000 verdict in favor of the employee.

The employer appealed the verdict. Initially, a Fifth Circuit panel tossed out the trial verdict for the employee, finding that there was insufficient evidence to establish that the supervisor had discriminated against the employee because of his gender. The EEOC subsequently sought and obtained an en banc review. Upon review, the en banc majority disagreed with the panel’s decision to overturn the jury verdict.

Although same-sex harassment has been judicially recognized for over a decade, this decision links the concept of unlawful gender stereotyping directly to same-sex harassment and reminds employers that same-sex taunting can be actionable. Moreover, the court noted that there was no evidence that either the employee or supervisor were homosexual, nor was evidence presented that the conduct at issue was motivated by sexual desire. The court’s opinion cautions that notions of sexual harassment based solely on sexual desire or exclusively between members of the opposite sex are misplaced and can increase risks for employers who are not aware that the prohibitions can be broader.

Employers should review their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in light of this opinion, and stay tuned for further developments in this area.

* Lagniappe: An extra or unexpected gift or benefit, i.e. “a little something extra”. (Chiefly Southern Louisiana & Mississippi).

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijman@phelps.com
 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

“You’ve Got (Mass) Mail”…From the EEOC?


In an ironic reversal of roles, on Monday October 21, 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) asked a federal District Court in the District of Columbia to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the agency by an aggrieved employer. The lawsuit alleges the EEOC unconstitutionally solicited or “trolled” the company’s employees to become class members in a potential age discrimination class action. (Case New Holland, Inc. and CNH America LLC v. EEOC et al., Civil Action No. 1:13cv1176).

The suit claims the EEOC violated the law by sending a mass e-mail, utilizing the company’s business e-mail domains, to over 1300 management and non-management employees, requesting the employees complete a survey and supply evidence of discrimination against the employer.

For employers more familiar with the typical EEOC procedures associated with a Charge of Discrimination, the mass e-mailing and request for information, without any notice to the company, raises some serious red flags.

The facts of the case are as follows. In March 2011, the EEOC notified CNH America, LLC (“CNH”) that it was launching a nation-wide review of the company for alleged violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). The company employs approximately 10,000 people in the United States. The EEOC made a sweeping request for information and documents.

According to the lawsuit, in January 2012, the company produced to the EEOC 300 documents totaling 5,707 pages and over 600,000 electronic records from CNH databases, totaling 66,630 pages of documents. After complying with the agency’s request, the company received no communications of any sort from the EEOC until June 5, 2013, eighteen months later.

At 8:00 a.m. on June 5, 2013, the EEOC conducted a mass e-mailing to the business e-mail addresses of 1330 CNH employees across the United States and Canada. Over 200 of the recipients were members of management. The e-mail stated the EEOC was conducting “a federal investigation” and making “an official inquiry” into allegations that CNH discriminated against job applicants and employees, and contained a link to an on-line series of questions. It also asked for the employee’s birth date, address and telephone number. The EEOC’s on-line survey instructed CNH employees to “Please complete and submit this electronic questionnaire as soon as possible.”

The e-mail had been sent without any advance notice to CNH and according to the lawsuit, the mass mailing disrupted CNH’s business operations at the start of the work day and communicated to employees they should cease their legitimate work duties and instead immediately respond to the agency’s questions. A significant concern was the company’s belief that the EEOC had deliberately cut the employer out of the investigatory process, and had solicited members of management, whose statements arguably could have bound the company.

CNH filed its lawsuit on August 1, 2013, alleging that the EEOC’s mass e-mailing: (1) was not authorized by any EEOC rule or regulation, (2) violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act, (3) constituted an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment, (4) violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, and (5) violated the EEOC’s own compliance manual, which requires that an employer be allowed to have a spokesman or attorney present during an interview of management employees, and that advance notice be given. The suit claims the EEOC engages in bullying tactics to force companies into monetary settlements of questionable claims.

The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting the EEOC from soliciting CNH employees by e-mail, and additional injunctive relief to prevent the EEOC from utilizing any of the information obtained through the mass e-mailing. The lawsuit claims:

"The EEOC has never, before June 5, 2013, sent out emails through business email servers, without any prior notice to the respondent employer, in an attempt to unearth plaintiffs against the employer"

On October 21, 2013, after some extensions granted by the District Court, the EEOC responded with a Motion to Dismiss. While addressing CNH’s various claims, the EEOC’s primary argument was that the case should be dismissed because the District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider CNH’s claims because it was not a “final agency action”, and that the EEOC’s actions were within the agency’s investigative authority. Additional briefing by the parties will take place before any ruling.

I am not going to try to “read the tea leaves” as to how the District Court will ultimately rule in this case, but a few things are worth noting. First, the EEOC has been less than successful lately when it comes to telling U.S. District Judges what their authority is in regard to the agency. You’ll recall in a recent posting, I discussed the EEOC’s recently stated position that the agency’s conciliation efforts with employers, or lack thereof, were not subject to review by the federal courts. As noted in my article, the EEOC subsequently received a severe slap-down by a U.S. District Judge in Texas. The EEOC also has recently found itself subject to significant monetary sanctions by federal courts for some of its investigatory and litigation tactics.

Second, this extremely aggressive approach by the EEOC should concern employers because it seems to be a deliberate effort to cut employers and their legal counsel out of the investigatory process. The EEOC has always had the investigatory right to interview non-management employees without an employer representative or attorney present. However, because a statement by a member of management could be considered a binding admission on the part of the company, an employer is entitled to have legal counsel present for such interviews. It’s very easy to envisage a manager being cowed by a very official and intimidating e-mail into providing information, unbeknownst to the employer.

Third, heavy handed tactics, such as the mass mailing to the CNH employees described in the Complaint, or other EEOC actions that have caught the attention of the federal courts and resulted in sanctions, could conceivably result in blowback for the agency. This might include congressional action to limit the EEOC’s authority.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The EEOC’s Title VII Conciliation Duty Remains Fair Game for Judicial Review


I am going to apologize in advance for this “Employee with the Dragon Tattoo Employment Law Blog” posting, because I suspect it will likely contain more than your daily suggested requirement of “legal-ese”. However, the issue of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) duty to engage in conciliation before suing an employer seems to be developing into another ongoing showdown between the agency and the federal courts. It is also an important issue for employers.

What prompted this posting was an editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Is the EEOC Above the Law?"  It addressed the EEOC’s recently stated position that the EEOC’s conciliation efforts with employers, or lack thereof, were not subject to review by the courts. As detailed in the editorial, the EEOC subsequently received a severe slap-down by a U.S. District Judge in Texas. It also got me thinking about a case I had a number of years ago where the question of “good faith conciliation” became a significant issue.

For non-lawyers (and other well-adjusted folks) “conciliation” is just a fancy word for trying to reach a settlement before an EEOC Investigation and determination evolves into an actual lawsuit brought by the agency.  It's an option many employers want to at least explore before having to engage in the costly defense of a discrimination suit brought by a government agency. 

When the EEOC makes a “reasonable cause” determination in the course of investigating a charge of discrimination, it triggers a mandatory responsibility under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) to engage in good faith conciliation efforts before filing a lawsuit. This responsibility is not supposed to be a mere formality that is satisfied by merely making a few telephone calls and then checking a box on an agency form. Conciliation, after all, serves important public interests by, among other things, guaranteeing administrative due process to the accused, protecting the public from unwarranted litigation expense, and conserving scarce administrative and judicial resources. It is for these reasons that federal courts uniformly recognize that the responsibility of good faith conciliation is so important that honoring it is a condition precedent to the EEOC filing a lawsuit.

Good faith conciliation efforts depend on the honest and straightforward communication of basic factual information. Common sense dictates that good faith conciliation efforts do not include “hiding the ball” by failing to communicate, or worse, withholding, basic factual information, since such tactics obviously deprive the accused of both the opportunity to respond to claims against it and the ability to understand the basis of any damages sought in settlement of those claims. Rather, good faith conciliation efforts can only occur when the EEOC “lays the cards on the table” by disclosing factual information sufficient to afford the accused with a reasonable opportunity to respond to the claims and damages at issue before the EEOC commits itself to litigation.

To satisfy the statutory requirement of good faith conciliation, the EEOC must: (1) outline to the employer the reasonable cause for its belief that the law has been violated; (2) offer an opportunity for voluntary compliance; and (3) respond in a reasonable and flexible manner to the reasonable attitudes of the employer. If a court finds that the EEOC terminated conciliation prematurely or failed to conciliate in good faith, it may stay the action and compel the EEOC to conciliate or dismiss the lawsuit. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) (1976) (the court may “in its discretion stay further proceedings for not more than sixty days pending further efforts of the Commission to obtain voluntary compliance”); see also EEOC v. Agro Dist., LLC, 555 F.3d 462, 469 (5th Cir. 2009) (“Courts remain free to impose a stay for the EEOC to continue prematurely terminated negotiations, and where the EEOC fails to act in good faith, dismissal remains an appropriate sanction.”).

So what are some hallmarks of “bad faith” conciliation? Denying an employer’s reasonable request for a face-to-face meeting is a common and compelling factor in finding that the EEOC has failed to conciliate in good faith. See, e.g., EEOC v. Agro Dist., LLC, 555 F.3d 462, 469 (5th Cir. 2009); EEOC v. Pacific Maritime Assoc., 188 F.R.D. 379, 380-381 (D. Or. 1999).

Another tactic found by the courts to be unreasonable and in bad faith is if the EEOC takes an “all-or-nothing” approach to settlement. See, e.g., Agro, 555 F.3d at 468 (“The EEOC's take-it-or-leave-it demand for more than $150,000 represents the coercive, ‘all-or-nothing approach’ previously condemned by this court…”); EEOC v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 340 F.3d 1256, 1259 (11th Cir. 2003) (“As we have said before, such an ‘all or nothing’ approach on the part of a government agency, one of whose most essential functions is to attempt conciliation with the private party, will not do”).

Lastly, federal courts have held that the EEOC’s failure to explain its monetary demands is not reasonable and does not allow a defendant to properly respond. See, e.g., EEOC v. Golden Lender Fin. Group, No. 99 CIV. 8591 (JGK), 2000 WL 381426, at *5 (S.D. N.Y. Apr. 13, 2000) (holding that the EEOC did not meet its statutory obligation to conciliate when it ended conciliation after the charged party sought additional information regarding the requested damages of certain alleged victims); EEOC v. Pac. Mar. Ass’n, 188 F.R.D. 379, 381 (D. Or. 1999) (ordering a stay for further conciliation where “meaningful conciliation efforts were thwarted” during conciliation after “[c]ounsel for [defendant] reasonably requested that the EEOC investigator explain his calculation of the monetary settlement offered”).

In the case I was involved in, my co-counsel and I were faced with all three of the tactics described above. We were representing an out-of-state company in a sexual harassment claim brought by a number of employees, and the particular out-of-state EEOC office had filed suit after very perfunctory and unproductive conciliation.  The client had responded promptly and correctly when it discovered the actions of a rogue supervisory employee, yet the EEOC was demanding an excessive "take-it-or-leave-it" monetary settlement, wildly disproportionate to actual damages in the case.

We responded by filing a motion with the court to stay litigation and compel good faith conciliation. In a well-reasoned opinion, the U.S. Magistrate assigned to the case ruled in our favor and ordered the EEOC back to the table.  While the case was not resolved at the "re-conciliation", it laid the groundwork for a later settlement of the case for a reasonable amount.

I think the ability of the federal courts to review the EEOC’s conciliation efforts is a valuable protection for employers, and without it, the statutory requirement of conciliation would become meaningless. In fairness and full disclosure, my overwhelming experience with the EEOC in this regard, especially the local office here in Jackson, Mississippi, has been positive and the people professional and upfront in conciliation negotiations. However, as shown by the many court opinions on the subject, bad faith conciliation occurs and the judiciary is a vital check to such abuse.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

EEOC Lawsuit Over Dreadlocks Sparks Criticism and Highlights Issues with Workplace Grooming Policies






The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") has filed suit against Catastrophe Management Solutions, a Mobile, Alabama based insurance claims company, alleging the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against an African-American job applicant on the basis of race because she wore dreadlocks. (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Catastrophe Management Solutions, Inc., Civil Action No. 1:13-cv-00476-CB-M) The lawsuit highlights the employment issues that can arise over workplace grooming policies, and also has sparked sharp criticism from the business community.

According to the EEOC's suit, after completing an online job application, Chastity Jones was among a group of applicants who were selected for a group interview on May 12, 2010. At the time of the interview, Jones, who is black, had blond hair that was dreaded in neat curls, or "curllocks." Catastrophe's human resources staff conducted the group interview and offered Jones a position as a customer service representative.

Later that day, the human resources staff met with Jones to discuss her training schedule. During that meeting, they realized that Jones's curled hair was in dreadlocks. The manager in charge told Jones that the company did not allow dreadlocks and that she would have to cut them off in order to obtain employment. Jones declined to cut her hair, and the manager immediately rescinded the job offer.

In the lawsuit, the EEOC argues that Catastrophe's ban on dreadlocks and the imposition of its grooming policy on Jones discriminates against African-Americans based on physical and/or cultural characteristics. Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for the EEOC's Birmingham District Office, stated, "Generally, there are racial distinctions in the natural texture of black and non-black hair. The EEOC will not tolerate employment discrimination against African-American employees because they choose to wear and display the natural texture of their hair, manage and style their hair in a manner amenable to it, or manage and style their hair in a manner differently from non-blacks.

The lawsuit came under sharp criticism today in a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "The EEOC's Bad Hair Day".  The editorial notes the EEOC has a habit of "challenging perfectly legal business practices" and "[s]o is it any wonder that the agency is now expanding resources to workplace dress codes." The editorial had much harsher words for the EEOC’s position:
Apparently Ms. Franklin-Thomas has never seen dreadlocked whites (like the Counting Crow's Adam Duritz) or Latinas (like Shakira). Catastrophe's policy is in fact racially neutral because it enjoins all employees, regardless of race, "to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image," including "hairstyle." The company determined that dreadlocks don't meet that standard, as is its right.

By leveling a complaint on Ms. Jones's behalf, the EEOC is perversely suggesting that black people shouldn't be held to the same standards as everyone else. The larger travesty of this case and other misbegotten EEOC crusades of late is that they take time and resources away from individuals with legitimate claims of employment discrimination. Banning dreadlocks doesn't qualify.
Lawsuits over grooming policies and dress codes are nothing new, but usually arise in the context of Title VII claims of religious discrimination. These occur when a workplace policy conflicts with a religious practice. Such practices might include the wearing of a beard by Muslim men, the wearing of a skullcap or yarmulke by Jewish men, the wearing of a veil or hijab by Muslim women or the wearing of a turban by male practitioners of Sikh faith. As noted in an earlier article, the wearing of certain tattoos can be considered a religious practice under Title VII. Typical conflicts are policies against facial hair, or wearing attire that interferes with safety equipment or procedures.

In the context of religion, Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s or job applicant’s religious observances or practices unless it can demonstrate that doing so would constitute an undue hardship on the conduct of its business. The reasonableness of an employer’s attempt to accommodate is a factual determination, made on a case-by-case basis. Each case necessarily depends on its own facts and circumstances, and in a sense every case boils down to whether the employer has acted reasonably. When putting together employee handbooks for clients, I typically advise including a provision in the dress or grooming codes that provides for a request for religious accommodation.

However, in the lawsuit against Catastrophe, the EEOC is claiming that the insurance company’s policy that employees "be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image," including "hairstyle" specifically discriminates against African-Americans on the basis of race. The aggressive position of the EEOC on this issue is a troubling development for employers, many of which likely have grooming and dress code policies very similar to the defendant in this case.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com.

Monday, September 30, 2013

JAILHOUSE BLUES: EEOC TRIES TO ADDRESS CONCERNS OVER CONTROVERSIAL GUIDELINES ON CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECKS


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has responded to complaints from nine state attorneys general, over the federal agency’s enforcement actions against employers who use criminal background checks in making employment decisions.

However, the EEOC’s assurances are unlikely to address the concerns raised by the states, and the Commission’s enforcement guidelines are already faring poorly in the courts.

It has been over a year since the EEOC issued its revised enforcement guidance on the extent to which employers may rely on an individual’s criminal history in making hiring or other employment selection decisions. The stricter guidelines made it clear that an improper reliance on such information may constitute a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). The stated rationale for the EEOC’s position is that employers’ reliance on criminal records as a factor in hiring decisions disproportionately affects minorities, who statistically have higher rates of arrest and criminal conviction. This theory of liability is called “disparate impact.”

The complaints from the states were prompted by two high profile lawsuits filed by the EEOC against BMW Manufacturing in South Carolina and Dollar General Stores, based in Illinois. In the suits, the EEOC alleged the companies discriminated against minorities by excluding them from employment opportunities based on improper reliance on criminal background checks. The states take issue with the Commission’s reliance on the disparate impact theory of liability and accuse the EEOC of improperly and illegitimately seeking to expand Title VII’s protections to "former criminals."

In its letter  responding to the complaints, the EEOC claims criticism of the new guidelines is based on a “misunderstanding” of how employers should implement the Commission’s suggestions. The EEOC also claims that the employee screening proposed by the guidelines should not result in "significant costs" to employers.

Although employers may continue to struggle to determine how to best comply with the guidance, as demonstrated by a recent U.S. District Court decision, they are also not defenseless to claims that their policies are discriminatory.

On August 9, 2013, a District Court in Maryland granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer Freeman, dismissing the plaintiff EEOC’s claim that Freeman’s background check policies violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(k). EEOC v. Freeman, Case No. RWT 09cv2573 (D. Md. Aug. 9, 2013). In so doing, the District Court recognized an employer’s policy of conducting criminal history or credit record background checks on potential employees as “a rational and legitimate component of a reasonable hiring process.” The District Court chastised the EEOC for pursuing a disparate impact discrimination claim based on “a theory in search of facts to support it,” disregarding the EEOC’s expert’s report as “an egregious example of scientific dishonesty.”

The EEOC’s expert’s report was pivotal to the success or failure of its claim. To prevail on a claim of disparate impact discrimination, a plaintiff must show that a certain class of applicants is disproportionately and adversely impacted by a particular employment practice on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(k). In its revised guidance, the EEOC essentially presumes that, based on national statistics, the use of criminal records to exclude individuals from employment has a disparate impact on individuals of certain races and national origins. This presumption, however, may not be sufficient in court where the plaintiff bears the burden of proving disparate impact by showing statistical disparities between the number of protected class members in the qualified applicant group and those in the relevant segment of the workforce. More often, the plaintiff’s burden requires reliable and accurate statistical analysis performed by a qualified expert.

Freeman challenged the EEOC’s use of an unreliable expert report to establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment discrimination and prevailed. The District Court, in excluding the EEOC’s expert’s report, found that the report was based upon an inaccurate database containing “cherry-picked” data and a “mind-boggling number of errors.” The District Court was also unpersuaded by the EEOC’s arguments that national statistics were sufficient to create an inference of disparate impact, noting that the national statistics relied upon by the EEOC were not representative of the relevant applicant pool.

With neither national statistics nor expert analysis to support its allegations of disparate impact, the District Court concluded that the EEOC’s claim could not survive and granted summary judgment in favor of Freeman. This decision strikes at one of the pillars for the EEOC in pursuing disparate impact litigation based on the use of criminal background checks; namely, the ability to move easily past (or effectively skip) the plaintiff’s burden to prove that a particular policy has a disparate impact on a class of applicants based on their race or other protected characteristic. The EEOC cannot rest on its presumption that the mere existence of a background check policy creates a disparate impact; it must prove the existence of this disparate impact with reliable expert testimony and statistics.

Despite the Freeman decision, employers should still expect the EEOC to rely upon its presumption of disparate impact during the investigation stage. What is less clear is what impact this decision may have on the two currently pending lawsuits the EEOC has filed against BMW and Dollar General. It is clear, though, that despite some direction from the federal courts, employers still continue to struggle when determining how to comply with the EEOC’s revised guidance more than a year after its issuance.

Notably, employers who operate in states that have their own requirements regarding the hiring of applicants with criminal backgrounds face a particularly arduous task. At least one federal court has recognized this dilemma but has concluded that “Title VII trumps state mandates.” See Waldon v. Cincinnati Public Schools, Case No. 1:12-CV-00677 (S.D. Ohio Apr. 24, 2013). In Waldon, the defendant employer Cincinnati Public Schools complied with a state law that required background checks of current school employees, even those whose duties did not involve the care, custody, or control of children. As a result, two long-term employees were fired, and they subsequently filed suit, alleging that their terminations were based on state legislation that had a racially discriminatory impact.

The school system moved to dismiss, asserting that it was simply following Ohio law by terminating the plaintiffs’ employment, that it maintained no particular employment practice that caused a disparate impact, and that it was a business necessity to follow Ohio law. A District Court in Ohio disagreed, recognizing that although it was clear that the school system did not intend to discriminate, it implemented a policy that had a disparate impact on African-Americans. The District Court did not believe that the school system was “compelled to implement the policy” and stated that the school system “could have raised questions with the state board of education regarding the stark disparity it confronted.”

The District Court’s suggested course of action for employers facing such a quandary is not particularly instructive, especially when multiple state leaders themselves have expressed to the EEOC the difficulty of complying with its guidance. On July 24, 2013, the attorneys general for nine states sent a letter to the EEOC expressing concerns about its revised guidance and the position the EEOC has taken in recent lawsuits regarding criminal background checks. View the letter here. The letter described the EEOC’s claim that its revised guidance document supersedes state and local hiring laws as “particularly egregious” and expressed concern that many of the states’ laws could be affected.

Thus, the propriety of criminal background check policies remains uncertain, and the EEOC’s pursuit of litigation has not added clarity. If anything, the EEOC has muddied the waters by pursuing cases with theories like it advanced in Freeman, which cause employers to wonder whether they should consider ignoring the EEOC, or expend resources trying to comply with guidance that has not been well received in federal court litigation, as well as a patchwork of competing state laws. Nevertheless, Freeman is but one case, state law continues to evolve, and the jury is still out on whether the states that have publicly criticized the EEOC’s guidance will do more than jawbone about it. In the meantime, employers seeking to navigate the various laws should continue to monitor the developments and revisit their policies and practices as the situation develops.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Improving Prospects for Federal Law Protecting Against Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity Discrimination

For decades, legislation has been unsuccessfully introduced in Congress to include sexual orientation/gender identity as protected categories under Title VII.  As the law currently stands, an employee has no cause of action against an employer for adverse employment actions based on the employee being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (“LGBT”).  However, in light of the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of the Defense of Marriage act, and changing societal attitudes, that could be about to change.

According to political observers and employment law experts, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“ENDA”) has very good prospects of being enacted within the next year. ENDA would put in place put a nationwide ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

According to an article published by Ben James in Employment360, the evolving attitude of the American public on LGBT issues “has created a critical mass to make this the best time and the best opportunity for ENDA to pass.

ENDA’s improved prospects for passage comes after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) release late last year of its Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for 2013-2016.  In the SEP, the EEOC made it clear, that despite sexual orientation not being a protected class under Title VII or any other federal law, it intended to bring cases against employers for LGBT discrimination by construing such instances as “sexual stereotyping” under Title VII’s general prohibition against gender discrimination.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

DEPARTMENT OF LABOR EXTENDS FLSA REQUIREMENTS TO IN-HOME HEALTH CARE WORKERS





 
On September 17, 2013, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor issued a Final Rule which limits the "companionship exemption" of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") and extends additional minimum wage and overtime protections to an estimated two million direct care workers, including personal caregivers, home health aides and certified nursing assistants.

Hardest hit by the Final Rule will be home health care staffing agencies and similar health care business. This is because the Final Rule, which becomes effective on January 1, 2015, does not allow third-party employers to claim the FLSA’s companionship services or live-in domestic service employee exemptions.

Generally, the FLSA requires that all hourly non-exempt employees be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime for hours worked beyond the forty hour work week. However, the law provided an exemption for domestic service workers hired for "companionship services" and such workers were not required to be paid the minimum wage or overtime. Likewise, the exemption did not require live-in domestic service workers to be paid overtime.

The Final Rule clarifies that direct care workers who perform medically-related services for which training is typically a prerequisite are not companionship workers and therefore are entitled to the minimum wage and overtime. And, in accordance with Congress' initial intent, individual workers who are employed only by the person receiving services or that person's family or household and engaged primarily in fellowship and protection (providing company, visiting or engaging in hobbies) and care incidental to such activities, will still be considered exempt from the FLSA's minimum wage and overtime protections.

Because home healthcare agencies will no longer be able to claim the exemption, such business will have to review and revise their payroll and time-keeping practices and procedures to be in compliance with the FLSA.

For Further information, the Department of Labor has proved answers to frequently asked questions on the Final Rule.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pirates and Rogues: Employee Theft of Trade Secrets and Proprietary Information “or” Jack Sparrow, Esquire’s Tips for Battling Digital Raiders



I. Introduction
"Me? I'm dishonest. And a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly, it's the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they're going to do something incredibly ... stupid."
~ Captain Jack Sparrow

In the mid-18th Century, an owner of a merchant vessel on the high seas would clearly know when his ship came under pirate attack. Cannons would be fired and buccaneers armed with cutlasses would board the vessel, looking to carry off the ship owner’s gold and other treasure.

In the modern workplace, the theft of an employer’s treasure, i.e. trade secrets, proprietary information, customer data, is much less obvious but just as devastating. Unlike the pirates roaming the sea in the late 1700’s, this theft is most likely to be carried out by a trusted and supposedly honest employee, usually for the benefit of a business competitor or to assist the employee in setting up his own competing business.

To paraphrase the observation above by the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, employers need to watch out for the employees they “think” are honest but who are actually getting ready to do something “incredibly stupid” and most likely, illegal.

This is further complicated by the now common “bring your own device” or “BYOD” practice of many employers, who allow employees to use their personal computers and smart phones to perform their workplace duties. When the employee eventually sails out the door to another job, the employer’s trade secrets likewise can sail away inside the employee’s iPad, iPhone or other device.

According to a 2013 survey conducted by computer security software company Symantec, more than half of departing employees kept confidential information belonging to their former employer and 40 percent planned to use such misappropriated trade secrets in their new jobs.

The purpose of this article is to make employers aware of how such workplace theft can occur, how to best protect and defend your business against any would-be pirates in the workplace and the options for launching a legal counter-attack.

II. The “Pirate” Attack

"Worry about your own fortunes gentlemen. The deepest circle of hell is reserved for betrayers and mutineers."
~ Captain Jack Sparrow

The theft of company trade secrets and other information by former employees or executives has become so common, it regularly makes the news. For example, computer chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices just recently sued four former employees, alleging they stole hundreds of thousands of documents before leaving to work for a competitor. In August 2012, a former Intel Corporation employee was sentenced to three years in federal prison for stealing Intel’s confidential design information prior to taking a job with another high tech company.

According to a 2010 statistical analysis, the annual costs associated with the theft of trade secrets and intellectual property were estimated at that time to be as high as $300 billion dollars a year, and that number has only risen in the ensuing years. However, such theft is not limited to large corporations, and businesses of any size can fall victim to such misappropriation.

In the most typical instance, an employer will not be aware its trade secrets or proprietary information have been stolen until it discovers the information is already being used to lure away its business and customers. The following hypothetical scenario illustrates the very real types of improper conduct now common in the American workplace.

Port Royal Industries (“PRI”) is a successful marine engineering company founded twenty-five years ago by its owner, Will Turner. Back when PRI was a small family business, Turner hired Hector Barbossa and Edward Teach for entry level positions. They ultimately became top executives and corporate officers. Turner considers them friends and trusted employees.

Because of the level of trust Turner has in Barbossa, Teach and all of his employees, PRI has never required its employees to sign non-disclosure, non-solicitation or non-compete agreements. Because of the “family business” atmosphere, Turner is somewhat lax about security for the Company’s computer network, where PRI’s proprietary designs and customer information are stored. Barbossa has a company-owned laptop which he uses for work, while Teach uses his personal iPad to perform his duties.

Late one Friday afternoon, Turner receives an e-mail from Barbossa, informing him that Barbossa, Teach and three of PRI’s top design engineers are resigning, effective immediately.

Turner learns that Barbossa, Teach and the engineers now work for PRI’s chief competitor, Black Pearl Enterprises (“BPE”). After the return of Barbossa’s company laptop, a preliminary computer forensic examination reveals that days prior to the resignations, Barbossa downloaded thousands of PRI’s engineering and design blueprints off its server and copied them onto external hard drives and flash drives. Computer professionals examine PRI’s server and determine that the day before he resigned, Teach used his iPad to remotely access and copy PRI’s confidential customer and pricing information.

The forensic examination also reveals that months prior to their resignations, Barbossa and Teach engaged in regular e-mail communications with the President of BPE. Among the topics discussed in the e-mails are their plans to leave PRI, how the abrupt loss of the three design engineers will cripple PRI’s ability to serve its customers, and PRI’s internal pricing information for key customers.

BPE is now aggressively competing against PRI and has been able to underbid PRI on a number of projects using the stolen pricing information. Utilizing the misappropriated design information, which they otherwise would not have been able to obtain through legitimate means, Barbossa and Teach have been able to take a number of key customers away from PRI.

An angry Will Turner contacts the law firm of Davy, Jones & Locker, LLC, to determine the best way to give Barbossa and Teach a legal keelhauling, and makes an appointment to meet with the firm’s top employment attorney, Jack Sparrow, Esquire. Unlike his famous cousin of the same name, Mr. Sparrow has issues with sea sickness, and opted to attend law school as opposed to entering the family business of captaining sailing ships.


The tale of PRI, its mutinous former executives and the piracy of its confidential business information will serve as the backdrop for how employers can avoid finding themselves in the unfortunate position of Will Turner. The advice from Jack Sparrow, Esquire also will show employers how to turn the tide against would-be boardroom buccaneers.

III. Best Practices to Avoid Trade Secret Theft by Employees
"Prepare the cannons, wake all sailors and prepare to repel boarders." ~ Captain Jack Sparrow

In their first meeting, attorney Jack Sparrow agrees with Will Turner that Barbossa and Teach are indeed “scurvy dogs, yellow-bellied bilge rats and generally dishonest rapscallions.” However, he advises that PRI could have avoided many of the problems now facing it by having had in place some basic policies and practices. “Not only would these policies have prevented or at least discouraged your two former executives from trying to pillage your business, but it would have given us additional legal claims to bring against these scalawags.” Will asked, “what do we need to incorporate into our HR policies and practices.”

A. Confidentiality / Non-Compete / Non-Solicitation Agreements
Sparrow explained, “One of the easiest ways to prevent employees from stealing your company’s confidential information is to simply have them contractually agree in advance not to do it.”
For most companies, employee confidentiality is vital to a company's competitiveness. An employee confidentiality agreement establishes that an employee will keep the employer's confidential, private, secret and proprietary information private and confidential and that such information will not be disclosed to the general public or to outside third parties, such as competitors. Typically, such agreements also can prevent an employee’s unauthorized use of such information. Employee confidentiality agreements ensure that a company's private information and valuable knowledge stays where it belongs, within the company.

Sparrow noted that another option would be for PRI to have all of its higher level employees enter into non-compete / non-solicitation agreements. “These type of agreements prevent former employees from competing against you or soliciting your customers for a period of time after they leave the company.”

In most states, these type of “restrictive employment covenants” are generally not favored, but will be enforced by the courts if the terms of the agreement are reasonable under the particular circumstances. Generally, there are three requirements: (1) the employer has a valid interest to protect; (2) the geographic restriction is not overly broad; and (3) a reasonable time limit is given. The employer bears the burden of proving the reasonableness of the agreement. The reason these types of agreements are construed very narrowly is that most courts recognize that an employer is not entitled to protection against ordinary competition from a departing employee.”

“In your instance” Sparrow observed, “you could justify the first factor because Barbossa and Teach were high level executives with access to confidential business and customer information, as opposed to one of your employees working on the loading dock. Courts look closely at the geographic restrictions of such agreements, because it would be against public policy for the restriction to be so broad as to prevent an individual from earning a living in his or her chosen field. For example, a restriction on competing within the entire United States would be considered overly broad and unenforceable. However, a limitation on competition in specific markets where you currently do business would be more likely to be enforced. As far as time restrictions, most courts will find a period of one to two years to be reasonable and enforceable.”

Sparrow also remarked that to be enforceable, these types of agreements must be supported by sufficient consideration. When Turner looked puzzled, Sparrow explained, “In non-lawyer talk, that means that the employee had to have received something of value in exchange for entering into the agreement.” What constitutes sufficient consideration can vary depending on the specific circumstances. However, in many states, courts have held that continued employment alone can be sufficient consideration to uphold a contract.

If Barbossa and Teach had been required to sign these types of restrictive covenants as a condition of their employment or continued employment with PRI, their actions would serve as the clear basis for a breach of contract claim. “However”, Sparrow noted, “because they never signed an agreement, that is one legal claim unavailable to us.” Turner sighed and noted, “I never expected I would need to have my employees contractually promise not to be dishonest” and he and Sparrow made arrangements for Davy, Jones & Locker, LLC to draft such agreements for PRI to use going forward.

B. “BYOD” or Bring Your Own Device Policies

The subject then turned to Teach’s use of his iPad to access and copy PRI’s confidential customer and pricing information. Sparrow asked “How long has PRI allowed its employees to use their personal computers and devices for work, and what kind of policies do you have in place to regulate how they are used?”

Turner replied, “Well, about two years ago, we started letting employees link their work e-mail to their personal smart phones. Over time, I let people use their personal laptops and tablets because they tended to be more efficient and productive with their own devices. It also saved the company money because it spared us the cost of buying a company-issued gadget. We instead pay a monthly stipend to the employees who use their own devices. We really don’t have any formal policy on how they are used.”

“You’re not alone,” Sparrow said. “In one recent survey, 92% of the companies reported that they had employees using their own personal devices for work. However only 44% of those organizations had ‘bring your own device’ or “BYOD’ policies that regulated the use of personal devices in the workplace. Even those employers who have BYOD policies are constantly having to scramble to ensure they are still relevant in light of the constantly changing technology.”

Sparrow continued, “While there are a lot of good reasons for having an effective BYOD policy, one key benefit is to prevent the misappropriation of your company’s confidential information. In a recent corporate survey, the most pressing concern was that sensitive information will be on a personal device that is lost, stolen, or in the possession of someone who leaves the company or other theft of data via uploading to a personal device.”
Turner requested that Davy, Jones & Locker, LLC draft a BYOD policy for PRI, and asked, “What should our policy include?” Sparrow said, “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all” policy, because every business is different and has different security and technology issues. He then outlined the following:

• Require devices to be pre-approved. Sparrow pointed out, “Different gadgets have their own pros and cons when it comes to security, and your company’s particular security needs will dictate which ones employees should be allowed to use.”

• Have mobile device management (MDM) software installed. “The two non-negotiable elements to look for in an MDM system are the ability to enforce security policies and to wipe remotely the personal devices used by employees.” Sparrow further explained, “Such software typically requires a strong password that's entered every time the device is turned on; ensures on-device file encryption; disables the camera; and specifies which applications are allowed, banned, or mandatory. It may also allow for monitoring to limit or deny access to certain company information. Data loss prevention (DLP) technologies also can automatically flag when sensitive files are touched or an unusual number of files accessed or copied.”

• Have employees agree in writing to security provisions. “You can save yourself a lot of grief if you address the issue with employees on the front end,” Sparrow said. “For example, an employee must agree to have their device remotely wiped if (1) the device is lost, (2) the employee terminates his or her employment, (3) if IT detects a data or policy breach, including unauthorized access to confidential company information, or (4) if there is any virus, malware or similar threat to the security of the company’s data and technology infrastructure.”

• Have an acceptable business use policy. The policy should define acceptable business use as activities that directly or indirectly support the business of the company. Devices may not be used for unauthorized storage or transmission of proprietary information belonging to the company or misappropriated from another company, to engage in outside business activities, to harass others, view pornography, etc.

• Disciplinary policy. “Employees need to know there will be consequences for lax computer security when using their own devices for work,” said Sparrow. “The company should reserve the right to take appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including termination for noncompliance with the BYOD policy.”

• Have a plan for departing employees. “The company should have a written agreement, signed by the employee, stating that the company’s IT department will be allowed to inspect and delete all confidential information from the device when the employee leaves the company.”

• Institute specific prohibitions on copying and forwarding of confidential information. Sparrow noted that a common thread in these types of cases is the downloading and copying of company information onto external hard drives/flash drives, or the forwarding of confidential information by e-mail to an employee’s personal e-mail address.

• Prepare a Departing Employee Checklist so nothing is ever forgotten. “The list itself will vary by the individual employer,” Sparrow noted, “but might include changing office lock codes, collecting keys, asking questions about any personal devices that may have company data, having the employees sign a statement acknowledging that all company data has or will be returned and another statement acknowledging that any post-departure access to the network would be a criminal act.”

• Consider other employment related issues. For example, a non-exempt employee’s use of a personal smart phone to check and respond to business –related e-mails or voice-mails off-the-clock can potentially expose an employer to liability under the Fair Labor Standards Act for unpaid wages or overtime. A BYOD policy should address when an employee is allowed to use the personal device for business purposes.

Sparrow added that along with the BYOD policy, “You also should have your IT department be on the lookout for any unusual activity that would suggest unauthorized accessing and/or copying of company information.”

IV. Assessing the Damage/Preparing a Case

"I leave you people alone for just a minute and look what happens. Everything’s gone to pot."~ Captain Jack Sparrow

When a company suspects a former employee has stolen confidential information, time is of the essence, both to prevent additional losses, and to acquire and preserve digital evidence of the employee’s wrongdoing to build a case against them. Sparrow told Turner, “A company that sits idly by while its trade secrets are being used unlawfully invites significant commercial harm, and even potentially risks waiving its rights to an injunction to protect those secrets, or even from claiming them as secrets at all. An employer should be ready to immediately implement an action plan.” This should include the following:

• Sparrow said, “you need to immediately lock the digital door”. “Terminate any remote access privileges or user credentials that the employee may have to company proprietary information, and make sure that all company-issued electronic devices (e.g. laptop, smart phone, tablet, USB and external drives, etc.) have been returned. These steps should have been done at the time of the employee's termination but are sometimes overlooked.”

• “Not all the information you need will be on a computer,” Sparrow noted. “Interview the employee's manager and co-workers about what the employee was working on, had access to, and whether there was unusual activity during the employee's last days, and whether the employee was acting secretively or left the company on bad terms.”

• Pointing to the computer on Turner’s desk, Sparrow said, “A common mistake is for employers to immediately re-assign a former employee’s computer equipment to another employee without first having it examined by a qualified expert. It is best not to even turn on or ‘power-up’ any such returned equipment,” he warned. “Collect and sequester any electronic media (e.g. smart phones, laptops, and removable hard drives) that the employee used, and store it in a safe location accessible to one or only a few people to ensure the devices are not tampered with and that a chain of custody is preserved.”

• “You’ve already taken one important step,” Sparrow said with a smile. “Retain outside counsel experienced in trade secrets and hacking cases to oversee the investigation and analyze the intellectual property and other legal rights which are available.”

• Sparrow also strongly stressed that any employer victimized by computer theft needs to “Retain an experienced computer forensic consultant.”

Sparrow told Turner, “While it is tempting for a company to rely on its in-house IT personnel to look for evidence of computer piracy, I always advise retaining an outside computer forensic expert to do the job. They typically have the specialized training and software to analyze the data without altering the contents or operating parameters of the devices and drives in question. This preserves the evidence for any litigation. A common practice is for the forensic expert to create an exact forensic ‘image’ of the device’s hard drive for purposes of analysis, leaving the original device unaltered.”

“What are the computer forensic experts looking for?,” Turner asked. “Using specialized techniques and software, they are looking for proof that files or other information have been copied off the device or otherwise misappropriated,” Sparrow explained. “A registry analysis will identify every external device that was attached to the computer by the date the device was connected, the time the device was connected, and the name and serial number of the device that was connected. It won’t tell you who was on the computer at the time or which files were copied, but it will provide some evidence that can be followed up in further discovery that can establish the theft.”

For example, Sparrow said, “If an analysis shows that Barbossa’s laptop was used to illegally copy your files, and the copying was done on a date when he was the only one with access to the device, that can be strong evidence to support our case.” Sparrow laughed and remarked, “It still amazes me how people will put the most harmful evidence in e-mails and texts, thinking they can destroy the evidence just by hitting ‘delete’. We should be able to get a better idea of what Mr. Barbossa and Teach were up to once we get a good look at their e-mails.”

“In some cases, you have employees who are more sophisticated about their computer theft and this is where computer forensics really pays off,” said Sparrow. “Rather than copying files off a laptop, they may simply copy the entire hard drive using software such as Norton Ghost©, which creates an exact duplicate image which can be transferred to another computer or storage device. They may then try to cover their tracks by using software like EvidenceEliminator© or Evidence-Blaster©.”

“However, this ‘cleverness’ can come back to bite them, said Sparrow. “While they may succeed in overwriting deleted data, making the files unrecoverable, the fact that they installed and then uninstalled evidence wiping software a day or two before they quit will remain in the registry. This raises the interesting question of what type of evidence is more damning, the forensic recovery of deleted files showing proprietary information was on the employee’s computer but deleted, or the presence of unauthorized evidence elimination software that could only be present for the purpose of spoiling the evidence.”

Sparrow also noted that computer forensic information is important in determining what business losses can be attributed to the employee theft. “In any lawsuit, you’ll bear the burden of having to prove money damages because of Barbossa and Teach’s wrongdoing.”

V. Legal Action Against Former Employees and Others

"Send this pestilent, traitorous, cow-hearted, yeasty codpiece to the brig."~ Captain Jack Sparrow

Turner banged his fist on the table and demanded, “Is there anything I can do right now to stop these rogues? I’m afraid that by the time we get to trial, they’ll have already sunk my business using my own trade secrets against me.”

Sparrow said, “The first thing we can do is to ask the court to grant some immediate injunctive relief. Injunctive relief is an equitable remedy granted when money damages would not be enough to compensate you for your losses if an injunction was not granted.“

“The type of injunctive relief we’ll seek is a temporary restraining order or “TRO” against Barbossa, Teach and BPE to prevent them from disclosing or utilizing PRI’s trade secrets. We’ll later move the court to leave it in place until our lawsuit can be decided on the merits. To obtain a TRO, we’ll have to convince the court of four things: (1) that we’re likely to succeed on the merits of our claims, (2) that PRI is being irreparably harmed by the improper disclosure and use of its trade secrets, (3) that Barbossa, Teach and BPE will not suffer irreparable harm if the TRO is granted, and (4) that the public interest is served by issuing the injunction.”

Turner thought about what Sparrow had explained and said “Well, if I’m going to have to convince the court I’ll succeed on the merits of my claims, I guess I better know what kind of claims I can bring. I think we’ve clearly and painfully established that it was a mistake for me not to have Barbossa and Teach under a restrictive covenant, and that rules out a breach of contract claim,” said Turner. What other options do I have?” Sparrow chuckled and said, “There’s more than one way to have these treacherous scoundrels walk the plank!”

A. Uniform Trade Secrets Act

“In your case, there is statutory protection against the theft of your trade secrets by your former executives,” said Sparrow. “Most states have adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. The purpose of the Act (“UTSA”) is to prevent a person or business from profiting from a trade secret developed by another, because it would allow them to acquire ‘a free, competitive advantage.’ To establish a claim of trade secret misappropriation under UTSA, we would have to be able to show: (1) that a trade secret existed; (2) that the trade secret was acquired through a breach of a confidential relationship or discovered by improper means; and (3) that the use of the trade secret was without the plaintiff’s authorization.”

“So can you tell me what is considered a trade secret under UTSA?,” Turner asked. Sparrow explained that under the Act, “A trade secret’ means information, including a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique or process, that derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means, by other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use, and is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.”

“Skip the legal jargon,” Turner demanded, “What the heck does that mean?” “In essence,” Sparrow said, “It means that a trade secret is something that is valuable to your business because it is not generally known outside your business, you take reasonable efforts to keep it secret, and the only likely way your competitor could find out about it would be by stealing it or through other improper means. Sparrow noted, “It would seem that the engineering designs that were stolen would meet the definition under UTSA.”

“Would the customer information they took also be considered a trade secret?” Turner asked. Sparrow nodded “Courts interpreting this section of the UTSA have consistently held that lists of current and prospective customers, the requirements of customers, and other proprietary business information can constitute a trade secret.”

Sparrow continued, “UTSA refers to the theft of trade secrets as misappropriation. That means the acquisition of a trade secret by someone who knows or has reason to know that it was acquired by improper means, such as theft, bribery, misrepresentation, breach or inducement of a breach of duty to maintain secrecy. It also includes the disclosure or use of a trade secret without consent by someone who used improper means to acquire knowledge of the trade secret. For example, if an ex-employee spilled the company secrets to a business rival, who starts using the trade secrets.”

“UTSA also prohibits the use of trade secrets by a company which ‘has reason to know’ that the material constitutes a trade secret. This is known as constructive knowledge (versus actual knowledge). In other words, even if a company was unaware it possessed purloined trade secrets, it can still be prosecuted if it should have known.”
Sparrow added, “With what we know right now, it looks like we have a good claim of misappropriation of trade secrets against Barbossa and Teach. In addition, we also should be able to go after BPE, because they clearly had reason to know that the information they were using belonged to PRI and was acquired by improper means. Under the Act, we can seek injunctive relief against them all and also seek money damages for the business losses they’ve caused to PRI.”

B. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

“Because of the way Barbossa and Teach stole information from PRI’s computer system, you also can assert a claim under federal law, said Sparrow. Sparrow continued, “The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA)” provides civil remedies for certain types of misuse of computers and computer files. “This law was originally enacted to bring criminal charges against computer hackers, but the civil component of the statute allows employers to seek damages against former employees for misuse of a protected computer,” Sparrow noted. “CFAA defines a ‘protected computer’ as a computer ‘used in interstate or foreign commerce or communication’ so a protected computer, in effect, could include any computer connected to the Internet.

CFAA prohibits numerous types of conduct, including the theft of data from a protected computer and the unauthorized access of a protected computer resulting in damage to a protected computer. Sparrow pointed out to Turner “The crucial evidence to support a successful CFAA claim will be the information you obtain from the forensic examinations you conduct early in the litigation process”

C. Breach of Fiduciary Duty
“What really bothers me about all this is that these two mutinous swine were my top executives and officers in the company and they were actively conspiring with my competitor. They were supposed to be working on behalf of PRI,” Turner said to Sparrow. “Surely that can’t be legal! Is it legal?”

“No, it’s not,” said Sparrow. Because they were trusted high level executives and corporate officers, they owed a legal duty of care and loyalty to your company. Because they clearly and intentionally worked against the best interests of PRI, we have a strong claim against them for breach of fiduciary duty!”
Sparrow explained to Turner that under the law in most states, a corporate officer has a duty of care which can be defined as follows: "A director or officer has a duty to the corporation to perform the director’s or officer’s functions in good faith, in a manner that he or she reasonably believes to be in the best interests of the corporation, and with the care that an ordinarily prudent person would reasonably be expected to exercise in a like position and under similar circumstances."

Sparrow continued, “The second fiduciary duty that all officers owe to their employer is that of loyalty, good faith and fair dealing. Officers have a duty to exercise ‘the utmost good faith and loyalty’ to the corporation. This includes the duty to refrain from engaging in self-dealing activities.”

“In this case, Barbossa and Teach are clearly fiduciaries because of their high level positions within the company. However, courts have recognized that even lower level employees, such as a store manager or an office manager, also may owe such fiduciary duties to their employer, depending on the individual circumstances.”

Looking through copies of the e-mails between Barbossa and Teach and the President of BPE, Sparrow said, “In these e-mails, your two back-stabbing executives are actively discussing with your chief competitor how to do damage to PRI. They’re doing this while serving as company officers and top executives who are ‘supposed’ to be working in the best interests of your company. This is hardly the conduct of loyal employees acting in good faith. These e-mails are ‘the smoking gun’ in our breach of fiduciary duty claim against them! Plus, juries generally don’t care for sneaky dishonest employees who are foolish enough to discuss all their wrongdoing in an e-mail.”

Turner asked, “Is there any type of claim we can bring against BPE? What about the engineers who left with Barbossa and Teach? They had to have known what those two pieces of shark bait were up to, and helped them to steal our information!”

Sparrow nodded and said, “A person or a corporation ‘who knowingly joins with or aids and abets a fiduciary in an enterprise constituting a breach of the fiduciary relationship becomes jointly and severally liable with the fiduciary for any profits that may accrue.’ In other words, if BPE, its President or your former engineers knowingly helped Barbossa and Teach in breaching their fiduciary duties to PRI, they also can be can be held liable for money damages. This could include any profits they made utilizing PRI’s information.”

D. Tortious Interference with Business Relations / Civil Conspiracy
“I’d really like to sink these sea rats” Turner said. “Is there one more claim I might be able to bring?” Sparrow laughed, “How about two?”

“One potential claim against them would be for tortious interference with business relations. To prove such a claim, we would have to show (1) their acts were intentional and willful; (2) their acts were calculated to cause damage to PRI in its lawful business; (3) the acts were done with the unlawful purpose of causing damage and loss, without right or justifiable cause on the part of BPE or its President, and (4) actual damage and loss resulted.”
“In our case, I think we’ll be able to prove all of that. First, their actions were clearly intentional and willful because we can show this scheme had been in the works for months. Second, their acts were calculated to cause damage to PRI, by taking away its business and customers using stolen information. Third, BPE has no lawful right to be using your information against you. Finally, we can show PRI has suffered actual damage because of their wrongful actions.”

Sparrow continued, “Another possible claim would be for civil conspiracy. Conspiracy requires a finding of “(1) two or more persons or corporations; (2) an object to be accomplished; (3) a meeting of the minds on the object or course of action; (4) one or more unlawful overt acts; and (5) damages as the proximate result.” The purpose of the conspiracy has to be to accomplish an unlawful purpose or a lawful purpose unlawfully.”
“In your case, Barbossa, Teach, BPE, its President and your engineers had the goal of hurting PRI’s business and clearly agreed on how they were going to go about it. Further, the unlawful acts involved the breach of fiduciary duty, violations of MUTSA and CFAA when they stole your information, as well as their tortious interference with your business relations.”

VI. Conclusion

'Well, then, I confess, it is my intention to commandeer one of these ships, pick up a crew in Tortuga, raid, pillage, plunder and otherwise pilfer my weasely black guts out."~ Captain Jack Sparrow

As illustrated by the fictional pirate tale above, dishonest employees rarely let you know in advance of their intention to “raid, pillage, plunder and otherwise pilfer” your company’s trade secrets. However, employers who put in place the proper policies and practices are less likely to find themselves in the position of the overly trusting Will Turner, and better prepared for any legal battles against pirates and rogues in the workplace.

Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com. An abbreviated version of this article has previously been published in the Mississippi Business Journal.