Same Sex and LGBT Protection Rights Flourish – Except in Workplaces?

In the last 20 years, the legal landscape has shifted dramatically for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. In 1996, the Supreme Court used the Equal Protection Clause to invalidate an amendment to Colorado’s Constitution that would have prevented any branch or political subdivision of the state from protecting individuals against sexual orientation discrimination.1 Several years later, the Court determined that individuals’ rights to liberty under the Due Process Clause gave them the full right to engage in private consensual sexual conduct without the government’s intervention.2 Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, finding that it violated the equal protection guarantee of the Fifth Amendment.3 And finally, just last year, the Supreme Court ruled that under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, same-sex couples had the right to marry in every state.4

While each of these decisions had a profound impact on the lives of many Americans, none increased the workplace protections of LGBT employees under federal anti-discrimination laws. As a panel of the Seventh Circuit recently pointed out, “[m]any citizens would be surprised to learn that under federal law any private employer can summon an employee into his office and state, ‘You are a hard-working employee and have added much value to my company, but I am firing you because you are gay.’”5

In fact, every circuit court that has been asked whether Title VII – the federal law that prohibits discrimination against an employee because of his race, color, religion, sex or national origin – covers discrimination based on sexual orientation has answered the question “no.”6 However, in reaching this conclusion, every court has unequivocally condemned the practice of sexual orientation discrimination as unwise, unfair and immoral. So why the disconnect?

As most courts see it, the issue is that Title VII does not explicitly prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, and Congress has attempted for decades to pass legislation that would expand Title VII to cover sexual orientation discrimination but has come up short.7 Also, most states have not passed legislation that covers such discrimination.

But all of this is not to say that LGBT employees are without recourse. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, Title VII has covered claims by employees who were discriminated against because they did not conform to traditional gender stereotypes.8 In Price Waterhouse, Ann Hopkins failed to make partner at her accounting firm and was told she could improve her chances next time if she would walk, talk and dress more femininely, get her hair styled, and wear jewelry. The Supreme Court said this sort of gender stereotyping constitutes discrimination because of sex under Title VII.9

What arose from Price Waterhouse is a line of cases that protect LGBT employees from gender stereotyping discrimination but not from discrimination based on sexual orientation. The courts following this approach are forced to distinguish between behavior that would fall into the gender stereotyping category and be protected from those which would fall into the sexual orientation discrimination category and not be. At best, this is a difficult task. At worst, it’s an exercise in futility.

Some courts, unwilling or unable to differentiate between the two categories, have discarded this approach all together. For these courts, if it appears that the employee is trying to recast a sexual orientation discrimination case as one for gender stereotyping, they will deny all relief. In other words, these courts reject employees’ claims of gender stereotyping, as meritorious as they may be, when it appears the claims are intertwined with a sexual orientation discrimination claim.10

This could be primed for a change, though. While courts seem confused as to Title VII’s scope, the EEOC has no doubt: sexual orientation discrimination is, the EEOC says, discrimination because of sex. In Baldwin v. Foxx,11 the EEOC came to this conclusion for three main reasons. First, it concluded that “sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily entails treating an employee less favorably because of the employee’s sex.”12 To make its point, the EEOC gave the example of a woman who is suspended for placing a photo of her female spouse on her desk, and a man who faces no consequences for the same act. Second, it explained that “sexual orientation discrimination is also sex discrimination because it is associational discrimination on the basis of sex,” in which an employer discriminates against lesbian, gay, or bisexual employees based on who they date or marry.13 Finally, the EEOC described sexual orientation discrimination as a form of discrimination based on gender stereotypes in which employees are harassed or punished for failing to live up to societal norms about appropriate masculine and feminine behaviors, mannerisms and appearances.14 In emphasizing this last point, the EEOC rejected the numerous court decisions that have tried to distinguish between gender non-conformity claims and those for sexual orientation discrimination.

In its guidance on the subject, the EEOC has tracked the Baldwin decision and said that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal under Title VII. In litigation involving the EEOC, it has pushed this tripartite approach with varying success. While no circuit court has followed Baldwin or the EEOC’s guidance, a number of district courts have taken notice. Courts in Alabama, the District of Columbia, California, Oregon and Pennsylvania have all sided with the EEOC’s position and found that Title VII does prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.15 So, at least in these courts, an employer may be held liable for discrimination based on sexual orientation, just like any other protected category under Title VII.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has not weighed in on this important topic to resolve the tension between the circuit courts and the EEOC (and certain district courts). It’s hard to say whether the Supreme Court will decide this issue soon, but the Court’s interest in cases addressing LGBT rights, such as the Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. case (involving issues of a school district’s obligations to a transgender student) that will be addressed this term, makes it likely that this issue will come before the Court eventually.

So until the Court decides whether Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, what’s an employer to do? After all, a mistake here –- even one made in good faith — could cost an employer Here are three things employers can do right now to minimize their liability:

  • Update your anti-harassment policy to include sexual orientation. While the weight of legal authority says that LGBT employees do not have claims for sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII, that trend is shifting. The EEOC’s position is clearly at odds with most of the case law, but as the agency enforcing federal discrimination laws, it has the authority to file lawsuits against employers who thumb their noses at it. A number of lower courts have listened, holding that Title VII does prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. Even if you disagree with the EEOC’s position, do you want to be the long and expensive test case that goes to the Supreme Court?

  • Train your employees on your policies. A written policy isn’t any good unless your employees –– particularly your managers –– know about it. It’s smart to periodically train your employees on sexual and other types of harassment. Make training on sexual orientation discrimination part of it. Ensure your employees know that your company prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation just as it does discrimination on other protected bases.

  • Make sure to follow through. It’s easy to talk the talk, but make sure you walk the walk. Just as you should not tolerate racial slurs and derogatory comments about women in the workplace, employees need to know that offensive comments about gay, lesbian and transgender individuals are also out of bounds. If someone makes a complaint of sexual orientation discrimination, management should investigate and take prompt remedial action, just as it would with any other type of complaint.

When it comes to LGBT rights and protections, the legal world is in a state of flux. For employers, that means a lot of uncertainty, but you don’t have to be held captive by uncertain times. Be proactive now and help limit the potential of future liability.


1. Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996). 

2. Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 578 (2003). 

3. United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013). 

4. Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2696 (2015). 

5. Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, No. 15-1720, slip op. at 33 (7th Cir. Aug. 1, 2016). 5.  

6. Id. at 6. 

7. See, e.g., Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013, H.R. 1755, 113th Cong. (2013). 

8. 490 U.S. 228, 251 (1989).

9. Id. at 251. 

10. See, e.g., Vickers v. Fairfield Med. Ctr., 453 F.3d 757 (6th Cir. 2006). 

11. EEOC Appeal No. 0120133080, 2015 WL 4397641 (July 16, 2015). 

12. Id. at 5. 

13. Id. at 6. 

14. Id. 

15. Isaacs v. Felder Services, LLC, 143 F. Supp. 3d 1190 (M.D. Ala. Oct. 29, 2015) (holding claims of sexual orientation-based discrimination cognizable under Title VII); Terveer v. Billington, 34 F. Supp. 3d 100 (D.D.C. 2014) (same); Heller v. Columbia Edgewater Country Club, 195 F. Supp. 2d 1212, 1222 (D. Or. 2002) (“Nothing in Title VII suggests that Congress intended to confine the benefits of that statute to heterosexual employees alone.”); Videckis v. Pepperdine Univ., 150 F. Supp. 3d 1151 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 15, 2015) (finding sex discrimination necessarily includes sexual orientation discrimination under Title IX); Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Scott Medical Health Center, No. 16-225 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 4, 2016) (denying defendant’s motion to dismiss and finding that allegations of sexual orientation discrimination are covered by Title VII). 

OSHA Clarifies Discipline, Retaliation and Drug Testing Commentary

When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its 2016 final rule requiring the electronic reporting of workplace injury and illness reports, it included controversial provisions on discriminatory discipline, retaliation, and even post-incident drug testing by employers. The uproar was instantaneous, with industry groups quickly filing lawsuits challenging OSHA’s authority to enforce the rule. Originally scheduled to go into effect on August 10th, the effective date for the new anti-retaliation rule was pushed back by OSHA until November 1st, and more recently, until December 1st.

In the interim, Dorothy Dougherty, OSHA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary, issued an interpretation memorandum designed to explain the anti-retaliation and injury reporting procedures in more detail. The interpretation may help clarify what your organization must do in order to comply with the final rule – even if it doesn’t make the rule more palatable.

Reasonable Procedures For Employees To Report Workplace Injuries/Illnesses labor law elections

An employer violates OSHA’s new final rule if it either fails to have a procedure for employees to report work-related injuries or illnesses, or its reporting procedure is unreasonable. OSHA states that this requirement is not new, as it was implicit in the previous version of the rule. But now, it is an explicit employer requirement.

OSHA considers a reporting procedure to be reasonable if it is not unduly burdensome and would not deter a reasonable employee from reporting an injury or illness. Examples of what it considers reasonable and unreasonable are as follows:

Reasonable

  • Requiring employees to report a work-related injury or illness as soon as practicable after realizing they have a reportable incident, such as the same or next business day, when possible

  • Requiring employees to report work-related injuries or illnesses to a supervisor through reasonable means, such as by phone, email or in person.

Unreasonable

  • Requiring ill or injured employees to report in person if they are unable to do so

  • Disciplining employees for failing to report “immediately” if they are incapacitated because of the injury or illness

  • Disciplining employees for failing to report before they realize they have a work-related injury that they are required to report

  • Unnecessarily cumbersome or an excessive number of steps to report a work-related injury or illness

In short, if your procedure allows employees to report workplace injuries and illnesses within a reasonable amount of time after they realize they have experienced a reportable event, and the procedure does not make employees jump through too many hoops, it will be reasonable and comply with the final rule.

Anti-Retaliation Provision Explained

Retaliating against employees for reporting work-related injuries or illnesses has long been unlawful. To issue a citation under section 1904.35(b)(1)(iv), OSHA must have reasonable cause to believe that an employer retaliated against an employee by showing:

  1. The employee reported a work-related injury or illness;

  2. The employer took adverse action against the employee (i.e., action that would deter a reasonable employee from accurately reporting a work-related injury or illness); and

  3. The employer took the adverse action because the employee reported a work-related injury or illness.

As in most employment retaliation cases, the third element on causation is often the toughest to prove. The determination is made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the specifics facts in any particular case.

OSHA has focused its commentary primarily on three types of potentially retaliatory actions—discipline policies, incentive programs, and post-accident drug testing. OSHA’s recent interpretation helps shed light on how employers should address these three issues to avoid a citation for a violation of the anti-retaliation rule.

Disciplining Employees For Violating Work Safety Rules

Employers violate the anti-retaliation provision by disciplining or terminating employees for reporting a work-related injury or illness. But, if an employer has a legitimate business reason for imposing discipline, such as the employee’s violation of a workplace safety rule, then there is no retaliation and no violation.

OSHA states that the primary inquiry is whether the employer has treated other employees who similarly violated a safety rule the same way – in other words, did the employer impose the same adverse action regardless of whether the other employees reported a work-related injury or illness. If the rule is consistently applied, then no retaliation exists. However, if the employer disproportionately disciplined employees for violating a rule when they reported workplace injuries, or the employer ignored violations of the safety rule when there was no injury or illness, OSHA may find that the actual reason for the discipline was the reported injury or illness rather than the rule violation.

Incentive Programs

OSHA does not prohibit employers from having safety-related incentive programs. But, it does prohibit employers from withholding a benefit or otherwise penalizing an employee because of a reported injury or illness. OSHA provides this example: if an employer raffles off a $500 gift card at the end of each month in which there are no workplace injuries, such an incentive program would violate the anti-retaliation provision as it withholds the incentive (i.e., the $500 gift card) when an employee reports a work-related injury. On the other hand, an acceptable alternative would be for the employer to raffle off a gift card each month in which employees universally comply with legitimate safety rules, such as using required fall protection and following lockout-tagout rules. The key is whether the employer is withholding a benefit because of a reported work-related injury. Incentive programs that penalize the reporting of injuries and illnesses are likely to result in an OSHA citation.

Post-Accident Drug Testing

One of OSHA’s more troubling and confusing anti-retaliation position is its stance that drug testing employees who report a work-related injury or illness can be considered retaliation. Many employers impose drug testing following any workplace accident or incident that results in injuries. OSHA states that while it does not prohibit employers from drug testing employees who report work-related injuries, employers must have an objectively reasonable basis for such testing.

So what is an objectively reasonable basis for testing? OSHA states that it will consider factors including whether the employer has a reasonable basis for concluding that drug use could have contributed to the injury or illness, whether other employees involved in the incident that caused the injury were also tested (or whether only the employee who reported an injury was tested), and whether the employer has a heightened interest in determining if drug use could have contributed to the injury due to the hazardousness of the work being performed.

In addition, OSHA will consider whether the drug test is capable of measuring impairment at the time the injury occurred, where such test is available. In its interpretive memo, though, OSHA states that at this time, the agency will consider this factor for tests that measure alcohol use, but not for tests that measure the use of any other drugs.

The bottom line is that OSHA is looking whether an employer is using drug and/or alcohol testing as a form of discipline against employees who report a workplace injury, which would be retaliation. Consequently, post-accident drug testing is permitted if all workers involved in the accident are tested in order to gain insight into the cause of the accident. But drug testing an employee whose injury could not possibly be related to drug use, such as a repetitive strain injury, would be seen as retaliation. 

Key Takeaways

Assuming that the anti-retaliation rules survive their legal challenges, employers should prepare to implement a reasonable procedure for employees to report work-related injuries and illnesses. Organizations should review any safety-related incentive programs and remove any punitive effects or withholding of benefits/incentives if an employee reports a workplace injury. When adopting and enforcing drug testing policies, be certain to test all workers involved in a workplace incident, not just those who were injured or reported an injury. And last but not least, be very mindful when deciding to discipline or terminate an employee who has reported a workplace injury or illness. Without a legitimate, well-document business reason for the discipline that is unrelated to the injury report, you may find your business cited for retaliation.

Copyright Holland & Hart LLP 1995-2016.

Executive Incentive Pay, Race Discrimination, Pokémon Go, Commercial Non-Competes: Employment Law This Week – August 1, 2016 [VIDEO]

Executive Incentive PayWe invite you to view Employment Law This Week – a weekly rundown of the latest news in the field. We look at the latest trends, important court decisions, and new developments that could impact your work.

This week’s stories include . . .

(1) Chamber: Executive Incentive Pay Rule Could Stunt Growth

Our top story: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce claims that the new executive incentive pay rule could stunt economic growth. The proposed rule lays out a tiering system for regulating bonus pay for bank executives and other employees in the financial sector. The Chamber’s 26-page letter argues that the rule could deter the best minds from entering the financial sector and discourage economic growth and job creation. The FDIC has said that the letter will be taken into account during the review process.

(2) Eighth Circuit Rules for Employer in Race Discrimination Suit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upholds an employer’s win in a race discrimination suit. An African-American employee of medical technology company Siemens was terminated as part of a reduction in force. The employee alleged that his selection was race-based, and he provided evidence of racial discrimination by his direct supervisor. The plaintiff claimed that poor evaluations by that supervisor “duped” the service director into firing him. The court found that the supervisor who wrote the evaluations did not know about the workforce reductions and, therefore, could not have intentionally triggered a discriminatory termination.

(3) Pokémon Go Sparks Privacy Concerns

Pokémon Go creates privacy concerns for employers. The first mainstream augmented reality game is sweeping the nation, and the game never stops, even during work hours. Despite a recent update to the game that reduces its access to players’ Google accounts, Pokémon Go’s data collection practices are under fire from privacy advocates. This week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center joined the fray, calling for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate security risks associated with the game. In light of the popularity of the game, employers should consider adding more detail to their policies about how and where business mobile devices can be used.

(4) Michigan’s High Court Changes Standard for Commercial Non-Competes

The “rule of reason” standard applies to commercial non-competes in Michigan, the state’s highest court says. Innovation Ventures contracted with a manufacturing plant to produce and package the “5-Hour ENERGY” drink. After the relationship was terminated, the plant began to produce competing energy drinks. Innovation Ventures argued that this action violated a non-compete clause in its termination agreement. Lower courts found that the clause was unenforceable under a provision in the Michigan Antitrust Reform Act (MARA). On appeal, the Michigan Supreme Court remanded the case, ruling that the MARA provision applies only to non-competes between employers and employees and that the federal “rule of reason” standard should be applied to commercial non-competes in Michigan.

(5) Tip of the Week

Ariel Merkrebs-Finkelstein, Director of Human Resources at HelloFresh, is here with some advice on best practices for developing company culture.

“It’s important for you to establish a strong company culture within your organization, because it will help you attract and retain top talent. One thing you can do is call each other a ‘family’ or a ‘team,’ rather than coworkers or colleagues. This will help you break down the barriers and facilitate conversations more easily. . . . Create opportunities for interacting with one another outside of the formal landscape of the office. This might include something like exercise classes, interactive games like ‘Escape the Room,’ or even just a picnic in a nearby park. . . . I also recommend that you recognize your employees. It’s a really great way to make them feel valued, and it’s free. So get creative.”

IFrame©2016 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.

Trade Secrets, Banker Bonuses, Worker Misclassification – Employment Law This Week – Episode 25 [VIDEO]

We invite you to view Employment Law This Week – a weekly rundown of the latest news in the field. We look at the latest trends, important court decisions, and new developments that could impact your work.

This week’s episode includes:

  • Former Workers Violated Ex-Employer’s Trade Secret Rights

  • Financial Regulators Propose Banker Bonus Restrictions

  • D.C. Circuit: Musicians Are Employees

  • NLRB Alleges Misclassification Violates NLRA

  • In-House Tip of the Week

©2016 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.

Uber Aims to Settle Two Class Actions; Approximately 385,000 Uber Drivers in California and Massachusetts to Remain Independent Contractors – At Least for Now

Last Thursday, Uber settled two closely-watched class actions contesting Uber’s classification of approximately 385,000 drivers in California and Massachusetts as independent contractors as opposed to employees. While the plaintiffs viewed the settlement as a victory, so likely did Uber, as it allows Uber to continue to pursue an on-demand independent contractor service business model.  The court, however, still needs to approve the settlement and whether it will do so is not clear.

As part of the proposed settlement, Uber agreed to pay $84 million to the drivers. If Uber holds an initial public offering and its valuation goes above $93.75 billion within one year, Uber will pay an additional $16 million to the drivers bringing the total settlement to $100 million.  After reducing the pot to account for attorneys’ fees and other costs, the individual payments, based on the number of miles driven by each driver, range from nominal amounts up to $8,000, although the majority of class members may just walk away with less than $100.  Uber further agreed to revise its termination practices so that drivers must generally be given warnings and explanations before Uber can deactivate them from its software application.  Drivers will also be able to appeal terminations and will enjoy a more driver-friendly tipping policy.

Many consider $84 million, or even $100 million, a well-spent business expense for Uber, who potentially had to spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to reclassify its drivers and comply with the requirements of minimum wage, overtime, workers compensation, anti-discrimination, benefits, sick leave, and other federal, state and local laws that apply to employees.

But Uber is not out of the woods yet. First, as mentioned earlier, the court must approve the settlement and there is no guarantee that it will.  Just a few weeks earlier, a California judge rejected a proposed settlement of similar litigation between Uber’s competitor, Lyft, and its drivers in part because it “short-changed” those drivers.  Under that settlement, Lyft drivers would have received an average of $56.  Second, Uber is settling lawsuits with its former and existing drivers in California and Massachusetts, but lawsuits in other states remain outstanding and new ones could be on the way.  Stay tuned for further developments.

©1994-2016 Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. All Rights Reserved.

Wave of Recent and Transformative Pro-Employee Measures in New York

New York State and New York City lawmakers have taken several actions recently to expand employee rights and benefits. New York State has passed a 2016-2017 budget (“Budget”) that will significantly impact New York employers by creating a law governing paid family leave and enacting a statewide plan to incrementally increase the minimum wage resulting in a $15 minimum wage rate for some employers. Mayor Bill de Blasio also recently signed several bills amending the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), including 3 amendments that will strengthen existing employee protections.

Paid Family Leave

The New York State Budget enacts a paid family leave policy for New York employees (the “Paid Family Leave Law”) that will provide wage replacement to employees taking time o for covered reasons. Beginning January 1, 2018, employees who have worked for at least 6 months will be eligible for 8 weeks of paid leave benefits for the purpose of (1) caring for a family member with a serious health condition, (2) caring for a new child during the first 12 months after the child’s birth or after the first 12 months after placement of the child for adoption or foster care with the employee, or (3) addressing certain exigencies when a family member, including a spouse, domestic partner, child or parent, is called to active military service. Leave will be paid at a rate of 50% of the individual’s average weekly wage, not to exceed 50% of the state average weekly wage.

The length of leave benefits and amount of bene ts paid to eligible employees will increase incrementally. Once fully implemented on January 1, 2021, the Paid Family Leave Law will provide employees with up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to be paid at a rate of 67% of the individual’s average weekly wage, not to exceed 67% of the state average weekly wage.

Until New York passed the Paid Family Leave Law, only 3 states o ered any paid family leave: California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. While New York State lauds its Paid Family Leave Law as the “longest and most comprehensive in the nation,” this week San Francisco’s city supervisors voted to require employers with more than 20 employees to give workers six weeks of fully paid leave – a measure that is even more expansive than California’s current leave law that provides benefits for 55% of an employee’s average weekly wage. If signed into law, San Francisco’s paid leave law may be considered the most far-reaching in the nation.

But how does New York’s Paid Family Leave Law stack up against paid family leave insurance benefits o ered by its neighbor across the Hudson?

New York New Jersey
Employers Covered All Employers All Employers
Employees Eligible All employees who have worked for at least 6 months in NY All employees who have worked 20 calendar weeks
Reasons for Leave
  • care for newborn/newly adopted/foster child
  • care for family member with serious health condition
  • address exigencies associated with certain family members on active military service
  • care for newborn/adopted child
  • care for family members with serious health condition
Length of Benefits 12 weeks, once fully implemented 6 weeks during any 12 month period, with a different rate for intermittent leave
Amount of Benefits 67% of average weekly wage, not to exceed 67% of the state average weekly wage, once fully implemented 2/3 of employee’s average weekly wage, up to $524 per week maximum, with a different rate for intermittent leave
Job and Benefits Protection Requires reinstatement to the position held immediately prior to taking leave, or to a comparable position with comparable benefits. No job protection

Minimum Wage

New York’s Budget incorporates minimum wage increases throughout the State, which will increase the wage significantly from the current $9 per hour rate. The increases will be implemented in incremental phases and will vary by location within New York State and by the size of the employer’s business. By the end of 2018, many New York City businesses will be required to pay employees $15 per hour, which is the swiftest and most significant increase set forth in the Budget. However, New York City employers with 10 or fewer employees will experience smaller increases over a longer period leading to a $15 minimum wage rate at the end of 2019. Employers in other counties around New York City will reach the $15 per hour minimum wage rate by the end of 2021. Other areas in New York State will experience lesser increases, reaching a $12.50 minimum wage rate by the end of 2020 with further increases to be determined. New York is the second state to institute a $15 minimum wage rate, preceded by California which also recently implemented a phased-in increase to its minimum wage rates that will begin next year.

The Budget incorporates a “safety valve” provision, which provides that starting in 2019 the State Director of the Division of Budget will annually assess the impact of the minimum wage increases to determine whether it is necessary for the State to temporarily suspend the scheduled increases. Based on the Director’s recommendation and report, the Commission of Labor will determine whether or not to suspend or delay further increases to the minimum wage rate.

NYCHRL

The recent amendments to the NYCHRL, which already had some of the broadest employee protections in the country, further strengthen employee protections in New York City. Speci cally, the NYCHRL has been amended to benefit employees by:

  • codifying three judicial decisions, including by expressly stating that the statute must be interpreted liberally to accomplish “uniquely broad and remedial purposes” regardless of whether similar civil and human rights provisions under federal or state law have been similarly construed and that any and all exceptions and exemptions found in the statute must “be construed narrowly in order to maximize deterrence of discriminatory conduct.”

  • permitting a claimant to recover attorneys’ fees, expert fees and other costs in an administrative proceeding before the New York City Commission on Human Rights; and

  • repealing several provisions that were previously interpreted to limit protections related to sexual orientation.

Each of these amendments is effective immediately.

Tips for Employers

New York employers should review their policies regarding leave and ensure any necessary updates are made in advance of the Paid Family Leave Law’s January 1, 2018 implementation date. Similarly, the varied and incremental increases to the minimum wage rate throughout New York State will require New York employers to closely monitor their payroll practices to ensure that they properly implement minimum wage requirements. The employment-related amendments to the NYCHRL do not create a rmative requirements on employers. However, employers should bear in mind that New York City’s ever expanding NYCHRL creates unique challenges for employers seeking to defend claims. We will continue to update you as courts interpret these new measures, and if and when regulations are issued to address more nuanced concerns about the new legislation.

© Copyright 2016 Sills Cummis & Gross P.C.

Busted [Bracket]: Facebook Posts From Employee’s Vacation Undermine FMLA Claims

Ah, the tell-tale signs of March are here.  The winter is starting to dissipate in the northern climes, we’ve set the clocks forward, and Syracuse is bound for another Final Four run.  Unfortunately, most teams won’t be so lucky and many coaches will soon find themselves on a beach.  And why not?  After a long, hard-fought season that fell just a bit short, might as well take a warm-weather vacation – go for a quick swim, maybe hit the amusement park, and take a few pictures of all the fun in the sun and post them to Facebook.  Sounds like a marvelous idea for many NCAA coaches, but not so much for employees out on FMLA leave.  The plaintiff in Jones v. Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, a recent case out of a Florida federal court, learned this the hard way.

Background

Rodney Jones, an employee of Accentia Health, took 12 weeks of FMLA leave for shoulder surgery, but was unable to provide a “fitness for duty” certification because, his doctor said, he needed additional therapy on his shoulder.  Accentia permitted him to take an additional month of non-FMLA leave.  Towards the end of his FMLA leave and during his non-FMLA leave, Jones took trips to Busch Gardens in Florida and to St. Martin.  Jones posted several pictures of his excursions to Facebook – including, for example, pictures of him swimming in the ocean (this, of course, during the time in which he was supposed to be recovering from shoulder surgery).

Accentia discovered the photos Jones posted to Facebook and provided him with an opportunity to explain the pictures.  When he could not do so, Accentia terminated his employment.  Jones then sued Accentia, claiming it interfered with his exercise of FMLA rights and retaliated against him for taking leave under the FMLA.

Termination Not Illegal

The court sided with Accentia.  First, Jones’ interference claim failed because Accentia provided him with the required 12 week leave and did not unlawfully interfere with his right to return to work thereafter.  Accentia had a uniform policy and practice of requiring each employee to provide a “fitness for duty” certification before returning from FMLA leave.  When Jones failed to provide such certification at the end of his FMLA leave, he forfeited his right to return under the FMLA.

Second, Jones’ retaliation claim failed because he failed to show Accentia terminated his employment because he requested or took FMLA leave.  Rather, Accentia terminated his employment for his well-documented conduct during his FMLA leave and non-FMLA leave.

Takeaways

This case provides several important lessons for employers.

  1. It is important to provide employees with an opportunity to explain conduct that appears to be an abuse of their FMLA leave entitlement. Employers who defend FMLA retaliation cases based on their “honest belief” that employees were misusing FMLA are much more likely to succeed if they conduct a thorough investigation into the employee’s conduct and give the employee an opportunity to explain the conduct.

  2. Ensure that any “fitness for duty” certification requirement applies uniformly to all similarly-situated employees (e., same job, same serious health condition) who take FMLA leave. The court in this case found that Jones’ interference claim failed, in part, because Accentia’s “fitness for duty” certification requirement applied to all employees similarly-situated to Jones.  Had it enforced this policy on an ad hoc basis, the outcome may have been different.

©1994-2016 Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. All Rights Reserved.