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Archive for October, 2017

Federal Circuit Scorecard – Title VII & Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Posted on: October 13th, 2017

By: Michael M. Hill

A Georgia case is in the running to be the one the Supreme Court uses to resolve the question of whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex and certain other characteristics) also includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Supreme Court is widely expected to take on this issue at some point, but no one knows exactly when or which case it will be.

In Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, 850 F.3d 1248 (11th Cir. 2017), a former hospital security guard alleged she was harassed and otherwise discriminated against at work because of her homosexual orientation and gender non-conformity.  While the trial court dismissed her case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals partially reversed.  The Eleventh Circuit held that Evans should be given a chance to amend her gender non-conformity claim, but it affirmed dismissal of her sexual orientation claim.

The issue, in most federal circuits, is a distinction between (1) claims of discrimination on the basis of gender stereotypes (e.g., for a woman being insufficiently feminine), which the Supreme Court has held is discrimination based on sex, and (2) claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation, which all but one federal circuit has held is not discrimination based on sex.

At present, this is how things stand now:

  • In the Seventh Circuit (which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), sexual orientation discrimination does violate Title VII.
  • In every other federal circuit, sexual orientation discrimination does not violate Title VII.
  • But no matter where you are, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) takes the position that sexual orientation discrimination does violate Title VII.

To make matters more confusing, the full court of the Second Circuit (which covers New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) is considering whether to affirm its past position that sexual orientation is not protected by Title VII or to join the Seventh Circuit. In that case, the EEOC of course is arguing that sexual orientation is a protected category, but the U.S. Department of Justice has filed an amicus brief to argue that sexual orientation is not protected.  In the words of the Department of Justice, “the EEOC is not speaking for the United States.”

The long and short of it is that, until the Supreme Court weighs in, employers need to be mindful of the federal law as interpreted in their circuit, while also understanding that the EEOC enforces its position nationwide whether or not the local federal circuit agrees with it.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Michael M. Hill at [email protected].

Court Holds that Eleven Claims are Subject to Single Limit

Posted on: October 13th, 2017

By: Joyce M. Mocek

Recently, the Eleventh Circuit, applying Florida law, held that eleven claims of bodily injury by separate patients all against a pharmacy and pharmacist for negligence in repackaging a drug for injections constituted “related claims” under the insurance policy(ies) at issue.  Amer. Cas. Co. of Reading, Pa. v. Belcher, No. 17-10848, 2017 WL 4276057 (11th Cir. Sept. 27, 2017)

In this case, a pharmacy and pharmacist allegedly repackaged drugs from larger vials into single dose syringes for injections into eyes of patients, but did not take the necessary steps to prevent contamination.  The syringes allegedly became contaminated, and eleven patients that were injected with the drugs suffered severe vision loss and/or blindness.   Both the pharmacist and pharmacy tendered the eleven claims to their professional liability carrier- which were separate errors and omissions policies issued by the same insurer, each policy with a $1 million per claim and $3 million aggregate limit of liability.

The insurers defended the claims presented against the pharmacy and pharmacist subject to a reservation of rights and asserted that the claims were “related claims,” subject to the $1 million per claim limit.  The trial court held that the claims were logically connected and thus “related claims.”   

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court, holding that the test to determine whether the claims were related was whether they were logically or causally connected by any common fact or circumstance.   In this case, the Court found that the claims were logically connected because a single technician supervised by the same pharmacist prepared each syringe using the same process at the same location, violating the same health and safety regulations.

If you would like to know more about this decision or other insurance coverage matters, please contact Joyce Mocek at [email protected]

 

FINRA Tightens Expungement Requirements

Posted on: October 12th, 2017

By: Brett C. Safford

On September 25, 2017, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) issued a “Notice to Arbitrators and Parties on Expanded Expungement Guidance” (hereafter, the “Notice”). The Notice continues the recent pattern of FINRA issuing rules and notices which further limit a broker’s ability to expunge his or her Central Registration Depository (CRD) record.

In 2015, FINRA launched an extensive advertising campaign for its BrokerCheck website. FINRA describes BrokerCheck as “a free tool to research the background and experience of financial brokers, advisers and firms.” However, as BrokerCheck becomes an increasingly utilized resource for customers and potential employers, the impact of a broker’s disclosures on his or her career becomes more significant. With the increased impact of a broker’s disclosures, the necessity of ensuring that those disclosures are accurate likewise increases. Consequently, expungement—a legal action which allows brokers to remove inaccurate disclosures—has taken on greater importance.

FINRA’s expungement procedures are governed by FINRA Rules 12805 and 13805. In the Notice, FINRA advises, “The procedures are intended to ensure that expungement occurs only when the arbitrators find and document one of the narrow grounds specified in Rule 2080.” The three “narrow” grounds specified in FINRA Rule 2080 are: (1) the claim, allegation or information is factually impossible or clearly erroneous; (2) the registered person was not involved in the alleged investment-related sales practice violation, forgery, theft, misappropriation or conversion of funds; or (3) the claim, allegation or information is false.”

By describing the grounds for expungement set forth in Rule 2080 as “narrow,” FINRA is signaling to its arbitrators that expungements are the exception, not the norm. The Notice further advises, “Expungement is an extraordinary remedy that should be recommended only under appropriate circumstances. Customer dispute information should be expunged only when it has no meaningful investor protection or regulatory value.” Yet, FINRA fails to define “appropriate circumstances” or how to assess “meaningful investor protection” or “regulatory value.” Arbitrators are also instructed to request a copy of the broker’s BrokerCheck report and to “carefully review the report when considering whether expungement is appropriate.” Arbitrators are to “pay particular attention to the ‘Disclosure Events’ section of the report.” The Notice, however, is unclear as to what arbitrators should take away from their review the BrokerCheck report. No guidance is offered as to what extent arbitrators should factor a broker’s prior disclosures into their analysis of the pending request for expungement.

The Notice also emphasizes that “[i]t is important to allow customers and their counsel to participate in the expungement hearing in settled cases if they wish to” and instructs arbitrators to allow the customer and their counsel to appear at the hearing; allow the customer to testify (in person, telephonically, or by other method); and allow the customer’s counsel or a pro se customer to introduce documents and evidence, cross-examine the broker and witnesses, and present opening and closing arguments at the hearing. In expungement only cases where an associated person files arbitration claims solely for the purpose of seeking expungement, the Notice advises arbitrators to “order the associated persons to provide a copy of their Statement of Claim to the customer(s) involved in the customer’s arbitration case that gave rise to the customer dispute information (underlying arbitration).”

Finally, the Notice states, “A broker may not file a request for expungement of customer dispute information arising from an underlying customer arbitration until the underlying customer arbitration has concluded.” When the broker is a named respondent in the underlying customer arbitration and he or she can present a defense, this rule prevents inconsistent rulings, i.e., the broker is found liable for claims in the underlying customer arbitration while obtaining expungement of that claims in the expungement-only arbitration, or vice versa. However, this rule also applies to brokers who are not named in the underlying customer arbitration. This means that before bringing an action to expunge a meritless disclosure from his or her CRD records, an unnamed, falsely-accused broker must sit on the sideline and await the resolution of an arbitration which he or she cannot present a defense. As such, a broker’s BrokerCheck report can include a false and erroneous disclosure for years before expungement is obtained—causing significant harm to the broker’s professional reputation.

In sum, the Notice continues the trend of FINRA toughening the requirements for expungement. Public protection against crooked brokers is essential and needed, but FINRA’s expungement guidance is increasingly creating a framework in which innocent brokers may struggle to obtain necessary and justified expungements.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brett Safford at [email protected].

LOL (Limitation of Liability) Clauses in A&E Contracts: He who laughs last, laughs best

Posted on: October 11th, 2017

By: Cheryl H. Shaw

It’s no coincidence that the abbreviation for “Limitation of Liability” is LOL. That’s the reaction design professionals often get when they include an LOL clause in a contract proposal. LOL or “exculpatory” clauses limit the designer’s liability for future claims—usually to the cost of services or a fixed dollar amount. Clients frequently balk at these clauses, but since the client reaps the bulk of the rewards for a successfully completed project (vs. the designer who’s “reward” is limited to his fee), shouldn’t the client also shoulder the bulk of the risk?

In Georgia, design professionals can contractually limit their liability for negligence. However, the LOL clause must be narrowly drafted so it does not violate Georgia’s anti-indemnity statute1. This means, among other things, that the clause should limit the designer’s liability to his client only, and not to third-parties who are “strangers” to the contract. Attempts to avoid liability to third-parties may render the entire clause unenforceable even if the claim is actually asserted by the client.

Additionally, because an LOL clause contemplates satisfaction of future claims and waives substantial rights, it must be “explicit, prominent, clear and unambiguous” in the contract. In determining if a clause is sufficiently prominent, Georgia courts consider several factors, including whether the clause is contained in a separate paragraph; whether the clause has a separate heading; and whether the clause is distinguished by features such as font size.

In one case, the Georgia Court of Appeals found an LOL clause unenforceable where it was “camouflaged” in the same font as the surrounding contract provisions and was listed under the heading “miscellaneous” instead of having its own separate paragraph. Conversely, an LOL clause contained entirely in its own paragraph, in bold and underlined text, and announced in a heading that clearly informed the reader of the clause’s content was sufficiently prominent.

A well-crafted LOL clause can be an effective tool to cap exposure in the event a lawsuit is filed and should be considered when negotiating contracts for professional services. If the client does, in fact, “laugh out loud” in response to your proposal, one strategy is to provide the option: You can either perform the services without an LOL clause for one fee, or you can lower the fee if the client will accept the clause.

FMG’s Construction Law practice group is here to assist you in drafting these important contact provisions. If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Cheryl H. Shaw at [email protected].

SCOTUS Affirms FMG Victory In First-Of-Its-Kind 11th Circuit Flash Bang Case

Posted on: October 10th, 2017

By: Wayne S. Melnick and A. Ali Sabzevari

Previously, we blogged on a first-of-its-kind summary judgment obtained by Freeman Mathis & Gary in a Section 1983 case involving allegations of excessive force based on the police’s use of “Flash Bang.”  The case was appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and that court affirmed the lower court opinion finding this case of first impression was the first in the circuit to address Flash Bang usage; and as such, the officer was entitled to the qualified immunity granted by the district court because there was no clearly established law on point.

In a one-line order issued earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court denied plaintiff’s petition for certiorari thereby locking in the 11th Circuit victory as controlling precedent. Because the 11th Circuit provided a bright line test for future Flash Bang use, it is imperative that all practitioners defending law enforcement officers who deploy Flash Bangs (as well as those officers themselves) be familiar with the rules provided by the court going forward.

If you would like a copy of the 11th Circuit opinion or more information, please contact either Wayne Melnick at [email protected] or Ali Sabzevari at [email protected].