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Archive for the ‘Employment Law Blog (US)’ Category

Holiday Office Parties: Serving Up Both Cheer … and Fear!

Posted on: December 3rd, 2019

By: Melissa Whitehead

There is no doubt that the Holiday Season is in full swing – and that means workplace holiday parties! While these festive events are great for increasing workplace camaraderie and celebrating achievements of the year, they are more well known for the high risk of inappropriate behavior. Somehow, companies that spend all year working to create a positive, healthy and respectful workplace find themselves on a Monday morning in December, calling counsel to ask for guidance in addressing some incident that happened at the office holiday party over the weekend. Here are some tips and things to think about, in hopes that your company can avoid making that dreaded call to counsel that begins with, “So, we had our office holiday party on Friday and…”

To Serve Alcohol or Not to Serve? Alcohol consumption at office parties creates a number of risks for the employer. First, if an employee consumes too much alcohol at the party and makes the poor choice to drive home and gets in an accident, the employer in many states (including California) can be found liable for any damage caused by that employee (including injury to others). Further, and more common, alcohol lowers inhibitions and can make employees feel more comfortable saying and doing things that they would otherwise never do or say in the workplace. This is why holiday parties are a common ground for #MeToo moments and similar issues.

That said, the reality is that most workplaces will serve alcohol at their office parties. Some tips for reducing the risks that come with serving alcohol include: (1) have a bartender or server serving drinks (as opposed to an open bar); (2)  enforce a 2-drink limit per attendee (e.g., drink tickets); (3) pay for transportation home from the party or overnight accommodations; and (4) designate an executive or HR professional to “cut off” attendees that appear over-served. It is also a good idea to send a notice to employees in advance of the party, reminding them that the company’s anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, and rules against hostile work environment are all still in full force and effect during the office party.

To Pay or Not to Pay? Another common question is whether employees must be paid for their time at the holiday party. This generally boils down to whether attendance is mandatory. If an employee is required to attend the party, in most states it will likely be considered “time worked” and subject to minimum wage and overtime rules. This issue can be addressed by holding the party during normal working hours and paying employees for their time as with any other workday. Alternatively, employers should make clear that attendance is optional.

Of course, this blog does not raise or address all risks that come with the workplace holiday party, but following these helpful tips will help you avoid becoming the next viral sensation of the holiday season! Happy holidays!

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

Florida Legislature is One Among Several Pushing for Mandatory Use of “E-Verify”

Posted on: November 8th, 2019

By: Melissa Santalone

A Florida State Senator has filed a bill that would require, beginning January 1, 2021, all Florida businesses to use the “E-Verify” system to check whether each newly hired employee is authorized to work in the U.S.  The “E-Verify” system is a web-based system operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that compares information supplied by the user, presumably first obtained from the new employee, with data held by DHS and the Social Security Administration.  The bill does not limit its application to businesses of a certain size and, therefore, even the smallest of Florida businesses would be required to comply.  Any businesses failing to register with “E-Verify” after the effective date of the bill, if signed into law, would be subject to suspension of all or any state licenses they hold.  If an employer is found to have committed a second violation of knowingly employing an “unauthorized alien” within a 2-year period, the bill would subject the employer to a 30-day suspension of its business licenses.  Governor Ron DeSantis has previously come out in favor of mandatory use of “E-Verify” and would likely sign the bill into law if it were to pass both houses of the Legislature.

By introducing this bill, the Florida legislature joins the legislatures of other states, including Pennsylvania, and the United States Congress in considering similar mandatory use of “E-Verify” in 2019.  Earlier this year, legislators in North Carolina proposed a bill that would increase the number of businesses subject to its mandatory use of “E-Verify” by including businesses with 5 or more employees, down from 25 or more.  Currently 9 states require all or most employers to use “E-Verify” and numerous others require some employers to use it.

Interestingly, the Florida bill would also create a private cause of action against an employer by an employee who is a U.S. citizen or resident alien that is discharged by the employer while the employer knowingly employs an “unauthorized alien” at the same job site or in the same job classification elsewhere in Florida.  In such an action, the employee could be entitled to reinstatement or the recovery of back pay, court costs, and attorney’s fees.

We will be watching to see if this bill becomes law.  If you have questions about Florida law surrounding the use of “E-Verify” or other labor and employment-related questions, please contact Melissa A. Santalone at [email protected].  If you need assistance in other states where Freeman Mathis & Gary can assist you, please contact a member of our Labor & Employment practice group.

U.S. SUPREME COURT HEARS ORAL ARGUMENTS IN TITLE VII SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND GENDER IDENTITY CASES

Posted on: October 11th, 2019

By: Bill Buechner

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday in three related and closely-watched Title VII cases. The question presented in the first two cases, which have been consolidated as Bostock v. Clayton County, ** is whether Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The third case, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al., presents a related but different question as to whether Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity. A transcript of the Bostock oral argument in these cases can be reviewed here. A transcript of the Harris oral argument can be reviewed here, and audio of the oral arguments will be available by the end of the week on the Supreme Court’s website.

In Bostock, counsel for the employees argued that discrimination based upon one’s sexual orientation is a subset of sex discrimination. In an attempt to illustrate this point, counsel for the employees repeatedly cited a hypothetical example of a male employee who dates a female and is not terminated and a female employee who dates a female and is terminated. Counsel for the employers argued that sex and sexual orientation are different concepts and that the hypothetical invoked by the employees does not necessarily demonstrate sex discrimination because it changes two variables: the employee’s sex and the employee’s sexual orientation. Counsel for the employers also pointed out that the Court has always required an employee asserting a claim for sex discrimination under Title VII to demonstrate that one sex is being treated more favorably than the other sex.

The oral argument reflected what appeared to be a sharply divided Court, with justices on the liberal wing of the Court appearing to be sympathetic to the employees’ argument that discrimination based upon sexual orientation should constitute sex discrimination under Title VII. On the other hand, justices on the conservative wing of the Court appeared to agree with the employers’ argument that discrimination based upon sexual orientation is separate and distinct from sex discrimination, that it therefore is not protected by Title VII, and that its addition falls within the purview of Congress and not the Court.

In response to questions by Justice Samuel Alito, counsel for the employees conceded that if a decisionmaker decides not to hire an applicant because of the applicant’s sexual orientation and does not know the applicant’s sex at the time of that decision, then there is no viable claim for sex discrimination. Counsel for the employees also conceded that sexual orientation and sex are different concepts. These responses arguably provide further support for the employers’ contention that a ruling in favor of the employees would in effect be a judicial amendment to Title VII.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who is generally regarded as a conservative justice, asked counsel for the employers whether sex may be at least a motivating factor along with sexual orientation, when an employer makes a decision based on sexual orientation. Counsel for the employers responded that sex is not even a motivating factor in that scenario. Justice Gorsuch later asked counsel for the employee in the Harris case whether a decision of this magnitude should be made by the legislature and not by the courts. In response, counsel for the employee asserted that there has not been any upheaval with respect to lower court rulings in favor of transgendered employees.

The arguments in Harris substantially overlapped the arguments made in Bostock, with even more focus on bathroom usage and whether (for example) prohibiting a biological male who identifies as female from using the women’s restroom violates Title VII. Counsel for the employee, Aimee Stephens, argued that the funeral home terminated her for identifying as a woman only because she was assigned the male sex at birth and for failure to comply with stereotypes about how men and women should behave. Counsel for the funeral home responded that sex and transgender status are different concepts and that a ruling in favor of the employee would invalidate all sex-specific policies based on sex, such as bathroom usage, showers, overnight facilities and dress codes.

Jeffrey M. Harris of Consovoy McCarthy in Arlington, Va. presented oral argument in Bostock on behalf of Clayton County and Altitude Express, Inc. (the employer in the second sexual orientation case). Stanford University law school professor Pamela S. Karlan presented oral argument on behalf of the employees in Bostock (Gerald Bostock and the estate of Donald Zarda). David D. Cole of the American Civil Liberties Union presented oral argument in Harris on behalf of the employee (Stephens). John J. Bursch of Alliance Defending Freedom presented oral argument in Harris on behalf of the funeral home. In addition, the U.S. Solicitor General, Noel Francisco, participated in oral argument in support of the employers in all three cases.

We anticipate that the Court will issue its ruling by the end of June.

** FMG attorneys Jack Hancock, Bill Buechner and Michael Hill represented Clayton County.

DOL Releases New Overtime Rule And Increases Minimum Salary To $35,568

Posted on: September 30th, 2019

By: Brad Adler

On Tuesday, September 24, 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor released its long-awaited new minimum salary threshold for the Fair Labor Standards Act’s white collar exemptions (i.e., executive, administrative and professional exemptions).  Under the new rule, which is set to take effect on January 1, 2020, the DOL has set the minimum salary threshold at $684 per week, or $35,568 per year (up from $23,660).  The DOL anticipates that the updated threshold will expand overtime pay obligations to an estimated 1.3 million additional workers.

Commenting on the new rule, acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella stated: “For the first time in over 15 years, America’s workers will have an update to overtime regulations that will put overtime pay into the pockets of more than a million working Americans. . .This rule brings a commonsense approach that offers consistency and certainty for employers as well as clarity and prosperity for American workers.”

Here are the highlights of the new rule:

  • The minimum salary threshold will be $684 per week, which equates to $35,568 per year.
  • Employers will still be able to use a nondiscretionary bonus, incentive pay or commissions to satisfy up to 10% of the standard salary level for the white collar exemptions (and the highly compensation exemption)
    • A one-time “catch-up” payment of up to 10% of the total standard salary level may be made within one pay period falling at the end of the 52-week pay period for those employees who have not earned enough to maintain their exempt status.
  • The highly compensated employee exemption’s additional total annual compensation requirement will increase to $107,432 per year.
  • The new rule did not make any changes to the duties test of the white collar exemptions
  • There are no automatic increases included within this new rule

Finally, while it seems inevitable that employee advocate groups are going to challenge the threshold, which they wanted to see much higher, we still believe it makes sense for employers to prepare for this new rule now.  As a part of their preparation, employers should be assessing whether they have employees they are classifying as exempt, but are making less than the new $35,568 requirement.  If so, employers need to decide whether to increase the employee’s salary, convert the employee to a non-exempt employee paid on an hourly basis or consider use of the fluctuating workweek method.

Please reach out to Brad Adler (Chair of FMG’s National Labor & Employment Practice Group) at [email protected] if you have any questions or need any assistance in navigating the new overtime rule.

Arbitration and Class Action Waivers Upheld in ERISA Plans, but an Industry Shift Toward Arbitration Remains to be Seen

Posted on: September 26th, 2019

By: Justin Boron

The judicial trend in favor of arbitration and class action waivers continues—this time in employee benefit plans.

Last month, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel validated an arbitration and class action waiver agreement contained in an employee retirement plan, and in doing so, it overturned a 1984 precedent holding that fiduciary claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) could not be arbitrated.

In a pair of opinions issued in Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp.,[1] the panel found that the reasoning in Amaro v. Continental Can Company,[2] was irreconcilable with recent opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court, including American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest., which had endorsed an arbitrator’s competence to interpret and apply federal statutes.[3]

The Dorman decision arose from a plan participant’s class action alleging a breach of fiduciary duty that resulted from the inclusion of Schwab affiliated investment funds in the 401k plan.  As yet another affirmation of arbitration and class action waiver agreements, it is sure to attract the attention of plan sponsors and plan fiduciaries.

But it might not necessarily be the game changer that previous class action waiver decisions have proven to be in the consumer and employment context, where companies have rushed to fold class action waivers into sales and employment agreements.

For one, several other circuit courts of appeal had already upheld arbitration agreements in plan documents.[4]  So at least in these circuits, plan sponsors have already been free to include arbitration agreements in employee benefit and retirement plans like the 401k plan at issue in Dorman.  Plaintiff also requested en banc rehearing earlier this month, so Amaro could still be revived.

Other reasons are more practical.  Including class action waivers in arbitration agreements might stave off a class action asserted in federal court.  But in contrast to their effect on wage-and-hour and consumer-protection class actions, class action waivers might not necessarily limit exposure on fiduciary claims under ERISA, which are themselves a kind of representative action brought on behalf of the plan for monetary relief.[5]  The Dorman and other appellate decisions have not expressly addressed whether a plan’s arbitration agreement could confine the action to individual monetary relief as opposed to plan-wide relief.  As a result, any judgment might benefit the plan and plan participants as a whole regardless of whether the action is styled as a class action.

Additionally, the cost savings attributed to arbitration of employment and consumer claims might not be present in ERISA claims, which are often decided on the papers in federal court. In contrast, arbitration likely requires the same amount of attorney time as in federal court, with the added costs of the arbitrator(s) and an arbitration hearing.  Combine the added costs with a limited standard of review, and it might not net a more favorable result than proceeding in federal court in a class action.

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

[1] Dorman v. Charles Schwab Corp., No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24735 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019), No. 18-cv-15281, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24791 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019).
[2] 724 F.2d 747 (9th Cir. 1984).
[3] 570 U.S. 228, 233 (2013).
[4] See, e.g., Williams v. Imhoff, 203 F.3d 758 (10th Cir. 2000); Kramer v. Smith Barney, 80 F.3d 1080 (5th Cir. 1996); Pritzker v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, 7 F.3d 1110 (3d Cir. 1993); Bird v. Shearson Lehman/American Express, 926 F.2d 116 (2d Cir. 1991); Arnulfo P. Sulit, Inc. v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 847 F.2d 475 (8th Cir. 1988).
[5] 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(2); 29 U.S.C. § 1109.