Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sandwich “Secrets” and Noncompete Agreements

The sandwich chain Jimmy John’s is getting some unwanted attention from the federal government amid reports that it requires its low-level employees to sign noncompete agreements as a condition of employment. The story was first reported by the Huffington Post, and it resulted in Congressional Democrats sending a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”)  and the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”), describing the restrictive covenants as “clearly anti-competitive and intimidating to workers.”  The House Democrats are asking for the FTC and the DOL to investigate the sandwich chain.
Is Jimmy John’s doing something illegal by making its sandwich-makers sign noncompetes?  The answer is “no.”  A better question to ask is whether it’s a good idea, and the answer to that is “not really.” 
In most states, this type of “restrictive employment covenant” is 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.
Despite the efforts to make this into a “federal case”, noncompete agreements are typically governed by state law, which can vary depending on where you live or operate a business.  For instance, in the state of Georgia, a noncompete agreement will be enforced only if the employee possesses selective or specialized skills, learning, abilities, customer contacts, customer information, and confidential information that that they have obtained as the result of working for the company.  In Tennessee, Texas and Maryland, such agreements are enforceable only against employees who had access to or were entrusted with the employer’s trade secrets or other confidential or proprietary information.  In other states, such as California, noncompete agreements are generally unenforceable.
In most of the matters I’ve handled involving noncompete agreements, the employees in question were either highly trained individuals in technical fields, with direct access to their employer’s trade secrets, or were high level sales people with similar access to confidential customer information.  The lesson to be learned is that the use of these agreements should be confined to key employees whose knowledge of trade secrets and other confidential information could cause serious damage if they went to work for a competitor.  I would be hard pressed to come up with a scenario where a fast food employer would legitimately need  to have a crew worker enter into a noncompete agreement. 
While I would be the first one to laud the attributes of a well-made sandwich, I think it’s fair to say that the average Jimmy John’s employee making your “J.J. Gargantuan®” is not privy to any company trade secrets.  By having low-level employees sign noncompete agreements, the company does not appear to be protecting any valid interest, and instead has brought itself some unwanted attention (and ridicule).

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, October 12, 2014

Dept. of Labor Delays FLSA Enforcement and Penalties Against Home Healthcare Companies

             Employers in the home healthcare industry will be getting a brief delay in the enforcement of new regulations extending minimum wage and overtime requirements to home healthcare workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). 
The U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) final rule is scheduled to take effect January 1, 2015, but on October 7, 2014, the DOL announced it would delay enforcement and the imposition of penalties for a period of six months, or until June 30, 2015.  For the following six months, or until December 31, 2015, the DOL will exercise its discretion in determining whether to bring enforcement actions, based on the extent to which employers have made “good faith efforts to bring their home care programs into FLSA compliance.”

 It is important for employers to remember that despite the DOL's enforcement delay, they are still required to begin complying with the new rule as of January 1, 2015.
            Up until the new rule, the FLSA contained an exemption that employees providing “companionship services” to elderly persons or individuals with illnesses, injuries, or disabilities were not required to be paid the minimum wage or overtime pay if they met certain regulatory requirements.
            This change will result in nearly two million direct care workers, such as home health aides, personal care aides and certified nursing assistants falling under the requirements of the FLSA.  Business groups and Congressional Republicans had strongly pushed for a complete suspension of the new rule, expressing fears that it would make home healthcare unaffordable and result in disruption to patient care.  In explaining its reason for the additional delay in active implementation, the DOL noted:
When we announced the final rule, we provided a 15-month implementation period before its effective date. We did so out of recognition that home care services financing is complex, and that making adjustments to operations, programs and budgets in order to comply with the rule would take time. Some states, tell us that they’re ready to implement the rule. Others, because of budget and legislative processes, have requested an extension.  After careful consideration, the department decided to adopt a time-limited non-enforcement policy. This approach will best serve the goals of rewarding hard work with a fair wage while not disrupting innovative direct care services.
            For employers seeking more detailed information on the changes to the FLSA under the final rule, the DOL is providing an on-line fact sheet.
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, October 6, 2014

EEOC Says “Do as I Say” and “Pay no Attention to What I Do” in Background Check Battle

            In its litigation offensive against employers over the use of criminal/credit background checks in making employment decisions, the federal agency is getting put on the spot over its own employment practices in two high profile cases. 
            In earlier posts, I discussed the EEOC’s lawsuits against national retailer Dollar General, and car maker BMW Manufacturing Co., alleging that the employers’ criminal background check policies systematically discriminated against African-American job applicants or existing employees.
            In the Dollar General case, the EEOC is currently fighting a motion to compel filed by the retailer, in which Dollar General is asking a U.S. District Court in Illinois to force the anti-discrimination agency to disclose its own policies on using background checks and criminal histories in employment decisions.  In a South Carolina District Court, BMW also has filed a similar motion to compel, seeking all of the EEOC’s documents regarding its policies and guidelines for evaluating the criminal records of individuals applying to work for the federal agency.
            Not surprisingly, the EEOC is arguing to the Courts in both cases that it should not be required to turn over the information, claiming the agency’s own practices are irrelevant to the allegations against the two companies.  In response, BMW, echoing an earlier response by Dollar General, noted to the Court:
This is not the first time that the EEOC has refused to provide information about its own employee screening policies and procedures while claiming that the policies and procedures of others are        unlawful . . . [a]nd, in all cases, courts have concluded that the information is relevant to issues of business necessity and estoppel and have compelled the EEOC to provide it.

The other cases BMW and Dollar General are referring to likely include the crushing defeat handed to the EEOC earlier this year by the United States Court of Appeals in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Kaplan Higher Education Corporation.  In that case the EEOC sued the educational services company for implementing credit checks after discovering that some employees had stolen student’s financial aid payments. The credit check policy applied to job applicants seeking positions where they would have access to cash or financial information. The EEOC claimed the policy disproportionally impacted “more African-American applicants than white applicants.”
In its affirmation of the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the company, the Sixth Circuit blasted the EEOC’s disparate impact theory of liability. In ruling against the EEOC, the Sixth Circuit noted that pursuant to its own personnel handbook, the EEOC runs the very same type of credit checks on its employees because “[o]verdue just debts increase temptation to commit illegal or unethical acts as a means of gaining funds to meet financial obligations.” The court specifically and wryly noted that this was the very same reason that Kaplan adopted its policy. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

EEOC “Spam” Gets a Green Light

          Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “spam” as an “unsolicited usually commercial e-mail sent to a large number of addresses” or “a canned meat product.”  Another definition may now be “an aggressive investigative tactic of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) which has been given a green light by the courts.”

On September 24, 2014, a U.S. District Court Judge in Washington, DC announced he will dismiss a lawsuit over the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) sending a blast of more than 1300 e-mails to a company’s employees, requesting they supply information to the agency as part of an investigation into allegations of age discrimination.

In my October 2013 post, “You’ve Got (Mass) Mail . . . From the EEOC?”, I discussed the federal lawsuit filed by construction equipment maker Case New Holland (“CNH”) in which the company alleged the EEOC unconstitutionally solicited or “trolled” the company’s employees to become class members in a potential age discrimination class action.

Prior to the e-mail blitz, the company had cooperated with the EEOC’s investigative requests by producing ten of thousands of page of documents and hundreds of thousands of electronic documents.  The company heard nothing more from the agency for more than a year and a half, until the incident that caused the company to sue the EEOC.

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 regarding alleged discrimination. 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 workday 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.

However, in his ruling announcing his plans to dismiss CNH’s lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton stated that the company lacked standing to bring the suit because it was not able to establish how it was injured by the EEOC’s investigatory tactic, other than vague allegations of business disruptions.  Judge Walton announced he would issue a written opinion dismissing the case within the next two months.  At this time, the company has not announced if it plans to appeal the ruling.

Although the EEOC had never before utilized e-mail at this scale to try and identify alleged victims of discrimination, it had argued to the court that the tactic was clearly within the agency’s investigatory authority.

With the U.S. District Court giving the green light to the EEOC’s investigatory “spam”, at least for the time being, it appears highly likely that employers will be seeing much more of this tactic.  From the EEOC’s perspective, it is cheaper and quicker then actually sending investigators to a workplace, and has the added benefit of being able to target thousands of potential plaintiffs/class members with the click of a mouse.  Also, as noted in CNH's lawsuit, it has the effect of allowing the EEOC to cut the employer out of the investigative process.

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 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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

EEOC Experiences “Separation Anxiety” in Lawsuit Against CVS

          The details are still yet to be known, but word out of Chicago is that the EEOC has suffered a big defeat in their controversial lawsuit against CVS Pharmacy, over the drug store chain’s use of separation agreements.  Employers commonly use separation or severance agreements when the employment relationship ends. In exchange for some type of payment, the employee agrees to a general release of any potential claims he or she might have against the employer, and possibly other provisions, such as confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses.
As reported in my August 8, 2014 post “Mad Men: The EEOC Advertises its Aggressive Agenda”, earlier this year, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against CVS, claiming the drug store chain’s use of its standard separation agreement 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.” 
The EEOC’s lawsuit was troubling for many in the business community, because employers nationwide commonly use the language being attacked in the CVS agreements. In the event the EEOC were to prevail, it could have result in chaos for many businesses, casting into doubt the validity of such standard severance agreements, and potentially allowing former employees to revive previously barred claims.  
On September 18, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge John Darrah verbally granted CVS’s motion to dismiss based on the EEOC’s failure to state a claim, and an opinion is expected shortly that will give the Court’s basis for dismissing the EEOC’s lawsuit.  CVS has announced it is pleased with the decision and the EEOC is withholding comment until it sees the Judge’s written opinion.
It is not surprising that the EEOC filed the lawsuit.  In its Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2013-2016, the EEOC had announced its intent to target employer policies it claimed discouraged or prohibited individuals from exercising their legal rights, including overly broad waivers or settlement provisions that prohibited filing EEOC charges or providing information in EEOC or other legal proceedings.
In its rush to file a “test” case, the EEOC might have made the error of simply picking the wrong defendant to go after, or not bothering to actually read the agreements in question.  When it filed its motion to dismiss, CVS noted that its separation agreements expressly allowed for employees to participate with and cooperate in any investigation by a government agency, including the EEOC. Specifically, CVS’s agreements expressly note that none of the provisions are:
“[I]ntended to or shall interfere with employee’s right to participate in a proceeding with any appropriate federal, state or local government agency enforcing discrimination laws, nor shall this Agreement prohibit employee from cooperating with any such agency in its investigation,” provided of course that the employee waives her entitlement to monetary and other relief.

       The decision in the CVS case may not bode well for a similar lawsuit filed by the EEOC in the United States District Court of Colorado.  Some legal commentators have suggested that the EEOC may be trying to use this type litigation to impose new guidelines for such agreements, or perhaps as a prelude to more formalized regulation

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, August 21, 2014

EEOC Successfully “Messes with Texas” Over Criminal Background Checks

It appears you can “mess with Texas” if you’re the EEOC.   As you’ll recall from the March 2, 2014 posting Don’t Mess with Texas Pt. 2, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed a motion to dismiss the State of Texas’s lawsuit alleging that the federal agency has overstepped its statutory authority by imposing limits on employers’ use of criminal background checks in making employment decisions.  These limits had been imposed under the EEOC’s updated 2012 enforcement guidelines.  In the lawsuit, the State sought injunctive relief to block the EEOC’s enforcement of the guidelines.
On Wednesday, August 20, 2014, a United States District Court Judge dismissed the State’s lawsuit on the grounds argued by the EEOC.  The Court held that Texas lacked standing to challenge the guidelines because there was no current risk of EEOC action against the state and any action by the Court would be premature.  The Court noted:

Importantly, Texas does not allege that any enforcement action has been taken against it by the Department of Justice … in relation to the guidance” [and]  b]ased upon this, the court cannot find a ‘substantial likelihood’ that Texas will face future Title VII enforcement proceedings from the Department of Justice arising from the guidance.

It is important to note that the dismissal of the State’s lawsuit was on a procedural basis and was not a ruling on the merits of the case.  It is not clear at this point whether the State of Texas will seek to appeal the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
In the original lawsuit filed by Texas, it alleged 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.”
The basis of the EEOC enforcement guidelines is the agency’s position 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. 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.
This victory for the EEOC comes after a string of litigation losses for the agency in cases they have filed against employers for alleged discriminatory use of background checks.
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