US Attorney General Jefferson Sessions Issues New Guidance On Transgender Employees

Yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Sessions issued new guidance reversing the federal government’s former position that gender identity is protected under Title VII.

In a memo sent to the heads of all federal agencies and the U.S. attorneys, the attorney general stated that as a matter of law, “Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity per se.” The memorandum further stated the DOJ will take the position in all pending and future matters that Title VII does not protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or transgender status.

Sessions’ memo explains Title VII expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex but makes no reference to gender, and that courts have interpreted “sex” to mean biologically male or female. Sessions concluded employers may differentiate on the basis of sex in employment practices, so long as the practices do not expose members of one sex to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which the other sex is not exposed. The memo highlighted sex-specific bathrooms as such an example. Sessions explained while Title VII prohibits “sex-stereotypes,” insofar as that sort of sex-based consideration causes disparate treatment between men and women, Title VII is not properly construed to proscribe employment practices that take into account the sex of employees, but do not impose different burdens on similarly situated members of each sex.

This guidance reverses and withdraws previous guidance by Attorney General Eric Holder in a December 15, 2014 memorandum in which Holder stated Title VII prohibits employers from using “sex-based considerations,” such as gender identity, in employment decisions. Sessions’ memo also runs contrary to the current position of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which treats discrimination against an employee on the basis of gender identity, including transgender status and sexual orientation, as violations of Title VII.

Currently, there is a split of authority in the courts on whether sex discrimination under Title VII includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex stereotyping, and thus prohibits discrimination against transgender individuals. The U.S. Supreme Court will likely have to resolve the issue in the future, but may issue some relevant guidance this term in the Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. case (involving issues of a school district’s obligations to a transgender student).

While it is now the position of the Department of Justice that Title VII protections do not extend to transgender individuals, employers should still be careful to avoid discrimination on the basis of gender identity, as the law is still unsettled. As Attorney General Sessions’ memorandum notes, there are still federal statutes that prohibit discrimination against transgender persons, and states and localities may have additional protections. Moreover, the EEOC could still bring suit against employers who engage in transgender discrimination.

This post was written by Allison L. Goico & Hayley Geiler of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. All rights reserved., © 2017
For more Labor & Employment legal analysis, go to The National Law Review

Uber’s Decision To “Deactivate” Driver Over Retweet of Article Goes Viral in Minutes

Allen Matkins Law Firm

It all started with a retweet. A recent story regarding the “deactivation” and subsequent reinstatement of an Uber driver in Albuquerque is a useful reminder for employers that, given the widespread use by employees of social media, employment decisions should not only be well thought out, but also should take into account potential negative publicity.

During a period while he was on hiatus from driving for Uber, Christopher Ortiz merely retweeted an article referenced as “Driving for Uber, not much safer than driving a taxi,” without commenting on the article. When he sought to resume driving for Uber a couple of months later, Ortiz received an email from Uber stating that his driver account had been “permanently deactivated due to hateful statements regarding Uber through social media.” The e-mail referenced the title of the article that Ortiz had retweeted. Ortiz immediately tweeted a screenshot of Uber’s email, and the story was picked up by websites such as Forbes and BuzzFeed.

Twitter Feed for Christopher J. Ortiz

Within hours, Uber reversed its decision and reactivated Ortiz’s driver account. Ortiz then tweeted a screenshot of Uber’s message reinstating him, which subsequently was retweeted numerous times.

In this situation, each of Uber’s communications with Ortiz was made public and broadcast within seconds of its transmission to Ortiz. It took only minutes for Uber’s termination decision to get attention from national media outlets. The fact that information regarding employers’ hiring and firing decisions can become subject to public scrutiny at such a rapid pace should serve as a reminder to employers to carefully assess how they approach these decisions and how they react to the decisions’ aftermath. For example, retracting an employment decision, particularly if it is publicized, could embolden other employees to publicize negative employment decisions affecting them in the hope those decisions too will be retracted.

As noted at the outset, employers should contemplate, as part of their decision-making process, that any employment decisions they make, and particularly those they may e-mail to their employees, potentially could be broadcast publicly and be subject to the court of public opinion through various forms of social media. As demonstrated by this incident, once a story gains traction on social media, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to control the ramifications.

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Apocalypse Averted Again: Preliminary Thoughts on Welcoming Workers Back From the Government Shutdown

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As discussed a few weeks ago, the government shutdown had a broad impact on a number of workers in the public and private sectors. Now that the federal government has reopened, employers welcoming back furloughed employees should stand ready to answer worker questions and assuage employee concerns. Below we offer some preliminary thoughts for private employers managing this delicate process.

  • Back Pay and Unemployment. Employers should be prepared to answer employee questions about their eligibility for back pay and unemployment benefits for their time out of work. If employers provide back pay and employees have already received unemployment benefits, employers should notify employees that they may be required to pay back any unemployment benefits received.  Generally, employees can either collect unemployment from the respective state unemployment agencies for the time missed or they can accept the backpay if offered by the employer, but they cannot double collect.  At least three state unemployment agencies (PA, VA, MD) have explicitly stated that they will expect reimbursement if employers provide back pay.
  • Guard Against Liability. Efforts by employers to return workplaces to pre-shut down normalcy, including by providing back pay and other benefits to workers for the furloughed time, should be implemented in an even-handed, non-discriminatory manner to guard against liability. For example, if employers decide to bring employees back from a furlough on a rolling basis, they must be sure to have neutral business-justified criteria for who is brought back to the workplace and when they are brought back to the workplace.
  • Manage the Message. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been temporarily out of work for up to three weeks because of the government shutdown. Employers should emphasize that these temporary furloughs were the outgrowth of the Congressional stalemate. Accordingly the message to employees should be clear: extraordinary circumstances and not poor job performance, forced employers’ hands and required them to temporarily furlough employees.
  • Ease Their Pain. Employers need to be sensitive to the plight of their returning workers, many of whom have been suffering severe economic hardship during this time period. Economic esprit-de corps measures like jeans days or pizza lunches represent cost-effective ways to remind returning employees that they are highly-valued and welcomed back into the corporate fold.

When in doubt about prospective measures in the wake of the government shutdown, employers should contact employment counsel.

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Department of Justice (DOJ) Intervenes in Qui Tam Action Against Lance Armstrong

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The Department of Justice announced in February that it would intervene in a False Claims Act suit filed against former Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and others by former teammate Floyd Landis. Reports indicate that in 2010, Landis filed a lawsuit, captioned United States ex rel. Landis v. Tailwind Sports Corporation, et al., in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit alleges that Armstrong and his teammates violated the terms of a $30 million sponsorship contract he and his cycling team had with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) by taking drugs to enhance their performances.

USPS sponsored Armstrong’s Tailwind cycling team from 1996 through 2004. During that time, Armstrong and his team took more than $30 million in sponsorship fees. The USPS claims Armstrong violated a contractual promise by regularly employing banned substances and methods to enhance their performance, in violation of the USPS sponsorship agreements. Those sponsorship agreements gave USPS the right to place its logo prominently on the cycling team’s uniform, among other promotional opportunities. However, the agreement also required the cycling team to comply with all rules of cycling’s governing bodies. Those rules prohibited the use of performance enhancing substances and methods.

For years Armstrong and others denied that the team used performance enhancing drugs, but in October, 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) issued a report concluding that Armstrong used banned performance enhancing substances, starting in at least 1998 and continuing throughout his career. The time Armstrong and teammates were alleged to have been “doping” overlaps significantly with the term of Armstrong’s USPS sponsorship.

After the USADA report, Armstrong admitted in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that he used banned substances and methods throughout his career, starting in the mid-1990s. He admitted having used banned substances during each of his seven Tour de France victories, including the six he won while sponsored by USPS.

The U.S. Government’s intervention complaint alleges that riders on the USPS-sponsored team “knowingly caused violations of the sponsorship agreements by regularly and systematically employing substances and methods to enhance their performance” and, as a result, “submitted to the United States false or fraudulent invoices for payment.” In addition, the complaint alleges that the Defendants “made false statements, both publicly and to the USPS, that were intended to hide the team’s misconduct so that those invoices would be paid.” All in all, according to the government, “[b]ecause the Defendants’ misconduct undermined the value of the sponsorship to the USPS, the United States suffered damage in that it did not receive the value of the services for which it bargained.” In support of its allegations, the government details the prohibited substances used by the Armstrong team, including erythropoietin, human growth hormone, anabolic steroids, and corticosteroids. It also details delivery methods used, including blood re-injections and “the oil,” a mixture of testosterone and olive oil. In addition, the government complaint contains a litany of Armstrong’s denials of banned substances use over a ten-year period.

While the Government notified the court that it was joining the lawsuit’s allegations as to Armstrong, the Tailwind cycling team, and the team’s manager, it advised the court that it was not intervening in the case as to several other defendants named in Landis’s complaint.

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Former Head of Investor Relations Penalized by SEC for Selectively Disclosing Material Nonpublic Information, While Self-Disclosing Company Escapes Charges

Katten Muchin

The selective and early disclosure of material non-public information resulted in a Securities and Exchange Commission cease and desist order and civil penalties against the former head of investor relations at First Solar, Inc. (First Solar or the Company), an Arizona-based solar energy company. The SEC determined that Lawrence D. Polizzotto violated Section 13(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Regulation FD by informing certain analysts and investors ahead of the market that First Solar would likely not receive an important and much anticipated loan guarantee commitment of nearly $2 billion from the US Department of Energy (DOE). The day after those disclosures, the Company publicly disclosed this information in a press release, causing its stock price to dip six percent.

On September 13, 2011, First Solar’s then-CEO publicly expressed confidence at an investor conference that the Company would receive three loan guarantees of close to $4.5 billion, which the DOE previously committed to granting upon satisfaction of certain conditions. Polizzotto and several other First Solar executives learned a couple of days later that the Company would not receive the largest of the three guarantees. An in-house lawyer expressly advised a group of First Solar employees, including Polizzotto, that they could not answer questions from analysts and investors until the Company both received official notice from the DOE and issued a press release or posted an update on the guarantee to its website. According to the SEC, notwithstanding this instruction, Polizzotto and a subordinate, acting at Polizzotto’s direction, had one-on-one phone conversations with approximately 30 sell-side analysts and institutional investors prior to First Solar’s public disclosure. In the conversations, they conveyed the low probability that First Solar would receive one of the three guarantees. In some instances, Polizzotto went further and said that a conservative investor should assume that the guarantee would not be granted.

Polizzotto agreed to pay $50,000 to settle the charges without admitting or denying any of the SEC’s findings. He, however, was not subject to even a temporary industry bar. The SEC did not bring an enforcement action against First Solar due to the Company’s cooperation with the investigation, as well as its self-disclosure to the SEC promptly after discovering Polizzotto’s selective disclosure. In addition, the SEC emphasized the strong “environment of compliance” at the Company, including the “use of a disclosure committee that focused on compliance with Regulation FD” and the fact that the Company took remedial measures to address improper conduct, including conducting additional compliance training.

In the Matter of Lawrence D. Polizzotto, File No. 3-15458 (Sept. 6, 2013).

Could Your Business Qualify for a 179D Green Building Tax Break?

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If your company has built a new facility or upgraded an existing one anytime in the past six years, you might find that you qualify — at least partially — for a tax break of up to $1.80 per square foot under federal tax code section 179D, or the energy efficient commercial buildings deduction. This could be the case even if you had no concrete intention to focus on green building standards at the time.

A couple of great features of this deduction are, first, that you might be able to substantially mitigate your tax burden  as far back as six years and, second, it’s very likely that you will qualify if your facility exceeds 50,000 square feet and it meets current state building codes, according to a business tax writer for Forbes, who spent eight years as the U.S. Senate Finance Committee’s tax counsel.

The 179D tax deduction gives the business an immediate deduction in the current year plus a basis reduction for the value of the facility, which can be anything from a warehouses or parking garage to an office park or a multi-family housing unit. For private-sector projects, the building owner, assuming it paid for the construction or improvements, generally gets the deduction. In public projects, the architect, engineer or contractor can obtain it by seeking a certification letter from the government unit. Nonprofits and native American tribes are not eligible.

The green building deduction was created in recognition of the fact that around 70 percent of all electricity used in the U.S. is consumed by commercial buildings. The deduction, which is up for renewal — and possible expansion — this year, has already proven that efforts to mitigate the tax burden of businesses in a technology-neutral way is an effective way to encourage energy efficiency, according to the Forbes writer.

What improvements must be made to qualify for the green building credit? Currently, the new or renovated building merely needs to exceed the 2001 energy efficiency standards developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE — and most state building codes already require this. That means the vast majority of new and improved buildings already meet this requirement.

It’s also possible to partially qualify for the deduction by meeting the standards only for the building envelope itself, which includes HVAC, the hot water system, and the interior lighting system. A building could qualify based upon only one of these systems, or all three.

Source: Forbes, “179D Tax Break for Energy Efficient Buildings — Update,” Dean Zerbe, Aug. 19, 2013

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Doing Business In Latin America: Does Your Local Supplier Have Best Practices In Place So That Your Company Can Avoid Liability Under The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)?

Sheppard Mullin 2012

Imagine yourself the CEO of a successful multinational company. In the past few years, you have overseen ACME’s expansion into Latin America – a market whose demographic profile holds the promise of mouthwatering profits for your company, particularly with the upcoming holiday season. As they say, la vida es buena!

In planning for the Latin America expansion, you knew about the rules and prohibitions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) and implemented measures to ensure your employees do not run afoul of the law. However, you may not have known that the company can incur FCPA liability for payments made by third parties, such as such as suppliers, logistics providers, and sales agents, with whom your company works. In fact, a company can be held liable if it knows or should know that a third-party intends to make a corrupt payment on behalf of or for the benefit of the company. Because a company can be responsible for conduct of which it should have known, a conscious disregard or deliberate ignorance of the facts will not establish a defense.

To protect your company from third party liability, it is essential to perform due diligence on potential business partners. This is not to say that you cannot consider the recommendations of local employees in selecting business partners. Relying on those recommendations alone, however, could expose the company to FCPA liability if that company does not conduct itself with the same level of integrity that you do. The amount of diligence necessary varies from one potential business partner to the next and can include an anti-corruption questionnaire, document review, reference interviews, or local media review, among other things.

That’s all well and good, but what about companies with whom you are already doing business and whom you now realize you may not have adequately investigated? Asking to review those companies’ FCPA compliance policies is a good first step. If you determine that a policy is inadequate, you may ask the company to provide FCPA training to its employees. You should also carefully monitor the company’s contract performance to ensure compliance. In particular, you should consider evidence of unusual payment patterns, extraordinary “commissions,” or a lack of transparency. The key question is: how is the company spending your money?

When in doubt, experienced legal counsel can assist you in navigating these and other FCPA issues. For example, Sheppard Mullin offers Spanish language training on the provisions of the FCPA and advice for successfully implementing internal safeguards and controls to protect against FCPA liability.

With a solid FCPA plan in place, your thoughts wander back to the upcoming holiday season and your company’s projected profits for the new Latin America division and you smile to yourself. La vida es buena.

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