Tuesday, December 20, 2016

EMPLOYMENT LAW AND A NEW ADMINISTRATION

 

One of the biggest employment law developments of 2016 will carry over into 2017 and a new administration.  Employers nationwide spent much of the past year preparing for the December 1, 2016 implementation of the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) Final Rule, bumping the minimum salary level for white collar exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") from $23,660 annually ($455 per week) to $47,476 annually ($913 per week).  However, just days before this key initiative of the Obama administration was to go into effect, a federal judge in Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction, finding the DOL had likely exceeded its authority under the FLSA. While breathing a sigh of relief, employers were left wondering what would happen next.
Current Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has since appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, seeking expedited review.  However, even under the expedited briefing schedule set by the Fifth Circuit, oral argument would not take place until at least February 2017, which would be after Donald Trump takes office.  This would allow the DOL, under Trump’s expected Labor Secretary Andy Puzder, to abandon the appeal.  Puzder, who is the current CEO of the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., has gone on record as to his strong opposition to the DOL’s overtime rule. 
My first prediction of 2017 is the Final Rule and its increased minimum salary requirement never goes into effect. Not surprisingly, Puzder also opposes efforts to increase the minimum hourly wage to $15, claiming such a significant increase would hasten the move to automation in the fast food industry and cost jobs.
In these waning days of 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) offered guidance to employers as to the rights of employees with mental illnesses under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and issued updated enforcement guidelines on national origin discrimination, including question and answer guidance and advice for small businesses.  Generally, national origin discrimination refers to: (a) treating an individual less favorably because he or she is from a certain place or has the physical, cultural, or linguistic characteristics of a particular national origin (ethnic) group; or (b) using an employment policy or practice that disproportionately impacts people on the basis of national origin and is not shown to be job related and consistent with business necessity. 
President Trump also will be putting his stamp on the EEOC.  As previously reported,  over the last eight years, the EEOC has taken a very aggressive posture toward employers, including lawsuits against companies over criminal background checks and separation agreements.  The EEOC’s actions and litigation conduct earned it some harsh words and harsh rulings from a number of federal courts. 
President Trump will select a new EEOC Chairman and a new EEOC General Counsel in 2017, both of whom will set the tone and agenda of the agency going forward.  With the Trump administration’s focus on reducing regulations faced by businesses, one target could be recent major revisions to the Employer Information Report (EEO-1).  With a focus on equal pay issues, the new form will require employers to list employee pay and hours by categories of sex, race and ethnicity.  The regulations are slated to go into effect in March 2018, but under a new administration, could be revised or even abandoned.


Monday, November 28, 2016

SURPRISE RULING ON FLSA OVERTIME RULE


It continues to be a season of surprises in American politics . . . and in employment law.  Who would ever have thought that a federal judge, appointed by President Obama, would throw a money wrench in a key initiative of the Obama Department of Labor?  Not me.  As I incorrectly predicted in my November 18, 2016 article, I fully expected U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzant III to shoot down an injunction aimed at blocking the December 1, 2016 implementation of the DOL’s Final Rule, bumping the minimum salary level for white collar exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") from $23,660 annually ($455 per week) to $47,476 annually ($913 per week).

What instead happened was that Judge Mazzant entered a nationwide preliminary injunction on November 22, 2016, blocking for now the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) from implementing significant changes to the overtime rules applicable to white collar employees.  The ruling out of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas held that the DOL most likely exceeded its authority by doubling the salary requirement, which would have rendered essentially meaningless the duties test, which is actually written into the FLSA.

The issuance of an injunction means that implementation and enforcement of the Final Rule by the DOL is just on hold until further notice by the Court.  The DOL has not yet announced whether it intends to appeal the ruling, and it remains to be seen if the Trump administration would have any interest in trying to implement a Rule so unpopular within the business community.  Another potential option might be a revised Rule that would include a smaller increase in the minimum salary requirement.

What I think I did get correct was my observation that “[i]f the unlikely actually happens, I expect an enormous sigh of relief from many employers, tinged with annoyance and aggravation over six months spent preparing for a rule that never went into effect.”  Annoyance aside, what should employers do at this point? 

In expectation of the December 1, 2016 deadline, many employers had bumped employee salaries to meet the new requirement, and many more had simply adjusted hour wages and work schedules in an effort to reduce overtime or keep actual wages approximately the same.  As reported in the Wall Street Journal, businesses are now faced with the difficult decision of either walking back pay increases they had already put in place, resulting in angry employees, or eating the expense of changes made in anticipation of a now uncertain requirement.

There is no right or wrong answer, and employers will have to look at a number of factors in making their decision for their particular business.  These factors include, but are not limited to: (1) whether the employer has already begun implementation of salary/exemption changes, (2) whether the employer has already communicated planned salary increases or changes even if it hasn’t actually put them in place, (3) whether the changes impact or potentially impact the company’s benefit plans, (4) the overall economic impact of the change to the client, (5) the workforce morale issues that may be implicated, (6) the temporary nature of the injunction and the fact that it could be appealed and, if so, potentially reversed on appeal.  This is an odd situation where those employers who planned ahead are faced with more issues than those companies that procrastinated and did nothing.


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Friday, November 18, 2016

RULING EXPECTED NEXT WEEK IN LEGAL CHALLENGE TO INCREASED SALARY REQUIREMENT FOR FLSA “WHITE COLLAR” EXEMPTIONS



Back in May 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") issued its final rule, bumping the minimum salary level for white collar exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") from $23,660 annually ($455 per week) to $47,476 annually ($913 per week). With the new standard slated to go into effect on December 1, 2016, employers have spent the last six months scrambling on how to comply with the new rule, which makes millions of formerly exempt employees now eligible for overtime under the FLSA.
 

Options available to employers include bumping employee salaries to meet the new minimum (not feasible in many cases), paying employees’ current salaries with overtime after 40 hours (increased expense), reorganizing schedules and workloads to avoid overtime, or adjusting hourly rates of pay to essentially maintain the same pay level by estimating potential overtime hours. For a more detailed explanation of the final rule, click on this link to read an article by my colleague Jessica Coco Huffman in Phelps Dunbar’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana Office. For a discussion and explanation of the FLSA white collar exemptions, click on this link.
 

However, 21 states filed a lawsuit against the DOL, seeking to block the implementation of the new salary requirement prior to it going into effect, because of the heavy burden it would place on state budgets An injunction hearing was held November 16, 2016 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. At the hearing, issues addressed included the DOL’s authority to make the change, the appropriateness of a nationwide injunction, and the impact on the incoming Administration. Following the hearing, the federal Judge in the case stated he was taking the matter under advisement, and expects to have a ruling on the requested injunction on Tuesday, November 22, 2016.
 

Reading the tea leaves, I think it is unlikely the Court will issue the injunction this late in the game. The federal Judge hearing the case, Amos L. Mazzant III, is an appointee of President Obama, who initially pushed for the change. However, after our tumultuous roller-coaster ride of a political season, the only sure bet is to see what happens next Tuesday.
 

If the unlikely actually happens, I expect an enormous sigh of relief from many employers, tinged with annoyance and aggravation over six months spent preparing for a rule that never went into effect.
 
 
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Friday, October 28, 2016

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

EMPLOYMENT LAW "SOUP OF THE DAY"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sunday, October 16, 2016

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





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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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


Thursday, October 6, 2016

THE EEOC CATCHES THE FLU BUG

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